Martin Fourcade versus Simon Schempp: Two perennial rivals who still greatly respect each other’s performances, duking it out on the final loop of Thursday’s mixed relay.
It was a fitting end to the first race of the 2016 International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Championships in Oslo, Norway, a finish sprint into the famous Holmenkollen ski arena with two athletes at the top of their game, in a repetition of a scene similar to what biathlon fans have witnessed repeatedly in recent seasons.
This time, France’s overall World Cup leader Fourcade prevailed against Germany’s anchor, skiing over the last bridge in the stadium and taking a little bow in the style of a telemark ski turn. He crossed the finish line in 1:14:01 and celebrated the gold medal with his excited teammates. Combined, the four-person French relay had no penalties and seven spare rounds.
“Today was really emotional, because it was my first, our first victory in a team race in World Championships since 2009,” Fourcade said at the post-race press conference.
“Of course we were among the favorites so we were thinking about [the gold medal],” Fourcade added in an interview with the IBU. “But in biathlon you never know until the last shooting. We were fighting for gold as well as for the fourth place.”
Germany finished second, just 4.3 seconds back, and also with seven spares.
“I tried to bring out everything I had, but in the end I honestly was too exhausted,” Schempp told German TV broadcaster ARD. “We are totally happy about silver.”
“The way Fourcade threw himself into the snow afterwards, I think that shows Simon [Schempp] pushed him to his limits,” Germany’s third leg skier Arnd Peiffer told ARD. “Martin definitely didn’t have it easy on the final loop today … With that ‘telemark’ move he was just showing his excitement, that had nothing to do with arrogance.”
Another 10 seconds back, Norway’s anchor Tarjei Bø secured the bronze medal for the home team (+14.4), with ten spares, to the huge joy of the audience.
The U.S. finished 10th (+2:19.6), with five spares, falling back on the last three legs after starter Susan Dunklee rocketed through the first exchange in first place. Canada placed 11th (+2:30.8), with 11 spares, unable to quite keep up with the leaders throughout the race due to too many misses on the shooting range.
After a festive opening ceremony at a central square in Oslo on Wednesday night, the Biathlon World Championships opened with the mixed relay, including two women and two men per team, with all other rules just like in a traditional relay.
The two women begin, and each ski 6 kilometers with one prone and one standing shooting stage, while the men have to ski 7.5 k each. The athletes can use three spare rounds per stage, and if they fail to clean their targets with those spares, they have to ski a 150-meter penalty lap for every miss.
The IBU first experimented with mixed relays 11 years ago as a special event during the World Cup finale. Since 2007, the discipline has been part of the official program at World Championships.
Initially it was a bit of an afterthought, with a number of countries with large teams using it as an opportunity to give their lower-ranked biathletes a start at championships, and saving their best ones for the individual starts and the traditional women’s and men’s relays.
That has changed in recent years, since the event also became part of the program at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. This year in Oslo, small and larger teams alike certainly pulled out all the stops, with almost every nation entering the its best athletes.
Low-hanging clouds and fog on the range had been predicted, but for Thursday’s competition, the view of the targets on the shooting range was actually clear despite a cloudy sky and a little fog shrouding the big ski jumps that tower over the Holmenkollen arena.
The French team, with Anaïs Bescond, Marie Dorin Habert, Quentin Fillon Maillet, and Fourcade, initially hit a snag when Bescond required all spares to hit her targets in her standing stage, narrowly avoiding the penalty lap and coming through the exchange in seventh place, 35 seconds behind Dunklee.
Then Dorin Habert crashed in a ski tunnel out on the course, in snow conditions some athletes described as “glazed” in certain sections.
“Nothing terrible, it was just a mistake by me,” Dorin Habert said of her fall at the press conference.
She quickly recovered and moved her team into third place at the next exchange, with Fillon Maillet and finally Fourcade able to close out successfully by pushing hard up the final small climb and U-shaped turn in the arena to create a little gap.
Similarly to France, Germany’s starter Franziska Preuss initially lost 20 seconds to the top due to two misses in her first prone stage, but moved back up to fourth place at the exchange. Then Franziska Hildebrand and Peiffer kept the team in contention for the podium, before Schempp was able to claim the silver medal.
In his last shooting, Schempp thought he had hit all shots taking down his rifle to head back out on the course, before realizing he had missed one and — like Fourcade -– still had to use a spare. Schempp made his shot and left the range just 1.7 seconds behind Fourcade. While Schempp was able to catch up on the course, he did not have the energy left to beat his rival in the final sprint.
Ahead of World Championships, fans and the media put a lot of expectations on the home team from Norway with Marte Olsbu, Tiril Eckhoff, Johannes Thingnes Bø and his older brother Tarjei Bø.
At the 2014 Olympics, Norway had won the gold medal in the mixed relay, though only Eckhoff, who grew up just a stone’s throw away from the Holmenkollen arena, was a part of the lineup back then.
In front of thousands of spectators, including Norway’s King Harald V, the team did not disappoint, with Olsbu and Eckhoff delivering some of their best performances of the season to tag off in second and first place, respectively. From there, the Bø brothers kept the team in podium contention.
“I was very nervous,” Olsbu said at the press conference. “I am just so happy that I made a good race today.”
Johannes Bø tried to make a move on his last loop, yet the other teams just behind him closed the gap again before the exchange.
After needing all spares in his prone shooting on the anchor leg, his brother Tarjei fell back 18.4 seconds, but was able to reduce that again to 7.4 with fast skiing and a clean final shooting stage. While he tried everything in his power, he could not quite catch up to Fourcade and Schempp again.
“Of course we are happy to have a medal at the Championships [at] home,” Johannes said during the press conference. “But we are athletes who want to win. So we are 90 percent happy [with bronze], and we take the last 10 percent next week.”
“Simon and Martin were too strong for me,” anchor Tarjei Bø said.
When a French journalist asked his rivals if Fourcade maybe gained a psychological advantage for the remainder of the World Championships after a win on Thursday, Tarjei Bø laughed and exclaimed: “Yeah, he is unbeatable. He’s so unbeatable that I will not race any more at these World Champs!”
“That’s a good idea,” Fourcade replied with a big smile on his face.
For a long time, four teams had been in close contention for the medals, but after a strong race Ukraine, with Valj Semerenko, Olena Pidhrushna, Sergey Semenov and Dmytro Pidruchnyi, could not quite keep up on the anchor leg with two spares in the last shooting. Ukraine finished fourth (+29.8), with nine spares.
Fifth place (+1:07.1) went to Austria, with Dunja Zdouc, Lisa Theresa Hauser, Simon Eder and Dominik Landertinger, which combined for a team total of just three spares, the fewest of any nation. Meanwhile, the defending world champions in the mixed relay, the Czech Republic, with Veronika Vitková, Gabriela Soukalová, Michal Slesingr and Michal Krcmar finished sixth (+1:23.3), with five spares.
Dunklee in the Lead
For US Biathlon, Dunklee started out strong, shooting clean in the first prone stage to leave in second behind France’s Bescond. Then she again hit all of her targets in standing to leave the range 4.5 seconds behind Norway’s Olsbu and Italy’s starter Dorothea Wierer (an athlete with multiple World Cup victories this season. Italy went on to finish eighth).
This time, Dunklee was not satisfied just staying behind the athletes at the top, immediately attempting to overtake Wierer and move up to Olsbu.
“I love the thrill of starting relays,” Dunklee wrote in an email after the race. “I have been close behind the leader tagging off many times, but I have never tagged off in first. On the last loop I was hungry to finally win my leg today and I wanted to give Hannah [Dreissigacker] the experience of leaving in the lead in front of a packed Norwegian crowd.”
Of all the first-leg skiers, Dunklee’s course time was the fastest.
“I do love the Holmenkollen crowds and the hilly course,” she wrote. “I felt relaxed and focused on the shooting range and felt very strong skiing. Our staff put together incredible skis today.”
“I love the thrill of starting relays. I have been close behind the leader tagging off many times, but I have never tagged off in first. I was hungry to finally win my leg today…” — Susan Dunklee, who put the U.S. in first at the first exchange on Thursday
Dreissigacker initially was able to keep up on the course with France, Norway, Ukraine, and Germany at the top.
“It was a fun race and definitely a real thrill [to] get the tag in first place,” Dreissigacker wrote in an email. “Susan really did us all proud out there. I did my best to ski my own race, but it’s always hard when you have lots of adrenaline and find yourself in first place.”
After requiring a spare in prone, she was still in third place, only 1.7 seconds back. Then having more trouble maintaining the leaders’ pace on the next loop and with another missed shot in standing, she fell back 22.7 seconds to fifth place. On her final loop, Soukalová, the overall World Cup leader, passed her on the course, and Dreissigacker lost another half a minute to the leaders, tagging off in sixth, 51.3 seconds back.
“I felt like I was in control on the first and second laps, trying to keep in touch with the leaders as much as possible without overdoing it,” Dreissigacker explained. “But I definitely didn’t have too much gas left in the tank for the last lap, and it didn’t help that I had really lost all contact with the women ahead of me. But that was also a group of the very fastest women in the world, so I am not surprised that they put lots of time on me in the last lap.”
The U.S. team’s third leg, Lowell Bailey had a strong performance on the shooting range and stayed clean both times just like Dunklee, but continued to lose time on the course, and his course time ultimately ranked 19th of the third-leg skiers. He tagged off in eighth place, 1:35.5 minutes back.
“The course was tricky today,” Bailey wrote in an email. “The new snow packed down and glazed, making some of the downhills and especially the stadium fairly treacherous. It wasn’t my best day on skis, but hopefully I’ll feel better as the Championships roll forward.”
Anchoring the U.S. relay, 20-year-old Sean Doherty required a spare in both his prone and standing stages, and with the 16th-ranked course time on his leg, he slipped two positions to finish 10th (+2:19.6), one position ahead of Canada.
“Today’s race was an exceptionally high level,” Doherty said in a US Biathlon press release. “We showed that we can shoot with the best teams and be very competitive. I am really happy with my leg and feeling strong looking ahead to the sprint.”
Overall, the Americans were not quite satisfied with their race, after tying their 10th place from the first World Cup of the season in Östersund, Sweden, but finishing six places back from their team-best fourth at the last mixed relay in Canmore, Alberta.
“The mixed relay is a format we often think of as one of our best medal hopes, so from that perspective our result today is disappointing,” Dunklee wrote. “After our 4th place in Canmore I think we all went into today with high hopes… On the range we put together an excellent performance, one of our best I would say. Tenth is solid, but we know with that good of [a] shooting we can be capable of much more. The good news is that we have many races still to come.”
“It was just tough, tight competition out there and I think we had a really solid team performance,” Dreissigacker commented. “Using only 5 spares for the whole team is great shooting!”
As Bailey pointed out, a top 10 is a top 10.
“It is a tight field and we were close to the leaders for a significant part of the race,” he wrote.
The Canadian team with Julia Ransom, Rosanna Crawford, Nathan Smith, and Brendan Green was hoping to build on its ninth place in the mixed relay in Östersund, Sweden, and sixth place at home in Canmore.
On Thursday, Ransom started in bib 5, and had some trouble to keep up with the leaders. With one miss in both her prone and standing stages, she found herself 36.5 seconds behind going onto the final loop, and then lost more time to tag off in 11th place, 1:03.4 minutes back.
Crawford was able to maintain the pace with the seventh-best course time on her first loop, before dropping off a bit the third time around the Holmenkollen 2 k course.
“It was nice on those first two laps to be working with Sweden and trying to stay with Soukalová,” Crawford wrote in an email. “I had a tumble on the same hill as Dorin [Habert] in warm up and broke a pole, but the race was smooth and I didn’t have to deal with any sketchy people on the downhill.”
But she couldn’t make up positions or time with a miss in her prone shooting and two spares in the standing stage, where she had some additional issues.
“I had some trouble with standing where my shell got stuck, and I wasted some time getting that fixed, and then missed two targets on top on that,” Crawford wrote. “So I am quite disappointed with my shooting. Getting the jitters out before Saturday’s race though hopefully!”
She handed off in 14th place, 1:27.7 back.
Currently the highest-ranked Canadian on the World Cup, Smith skied fast on the course, posting the fifth course time on his leg.
“I’m very happy with my skiing today,” Smith wrote in an email. “I’ve been struggling over the last 7 weeks to feel good on the skis. I wouldn’t say I felt like a total beast skiing, but I knew my shape was good just because I was able to more or less maintain position with top guys like [Russia’s] Garanichev and [Austria’s] Eder… I don’t actually particularly like this arena. I find the gentle ramp through the stadium surprisingly challenging. The ski loops are interesting though, and obviously great views.”
But like his teammates, he could not quite stay clean on the range, requiring two spares in prone and another one in standing.
“Shooting conditions were perfect,” Smith stated. “Very little wind and no fog. Earlier in the day it looked nasty but everything cleared up for us.”
Smith moved up the team a few positions to tag off in 10th (+1:35.9).
“I wouldn’t say I felt like a total beast skiing, but I knew my shape was good.” — Nathan Smith, who skied the fifth-fastest course time on the third leg to bring Canada from 14th to 10th
Canada’s anchor, Green also did not have a perfect day on the range, needing one spare round in prone and two in the final standing stage. Combined with his skiing (13th ranked course time), he lost some additional time to the top, with Canada closing out the race behind the U.S. in 11th place, 2:30.8 behind the winners.
“In my portion of the race there wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary,” Green wrote in an email. “The track was really glazed in some sections and the skiing in general felt like a bit of a balancing act at times.
“There has been a bit of wind during the last few days [of] training, but it dropped a bit this afternoon which was nice,” he wrote of the shooting conditions. “A slight but manageable wind from the left. I was a bit worried about the fog that was lingering throughout the day but fortunately it moved off and the range was clear.”
Asked if their team result was within expectations, Crawford wrote, “11th is a disappointing result for our team, we are capable of a top 8 on an average shooting day and for sure top 6 if we all have a great day on the range. 11 spares is not a normal day for our team I’d say.”
“11th is nothing to write home about but still a decent result,” Smith stated. “We knew everyone would be putting in their best teams.”
“Overall, today wasn’t a true representation of what our team is capable of,” Green wrote. “It’s day one of the Championships and I know we’re all hungry for more.”
Races in Oslo continue on Saturday with the first individual races: the men’s and women’s sprints. All races as well as shorter recaps can be streamed live or time-shifted (most with English commentary) on Eurovision Sports.
Some will also be broadcast in the U.S. on NBC Sports, according to a schedule US Biathlon posted.
“I just want to get one [individual] title, that’s my aim,” Fourcade said at the press conference.
“The atmosphere was great!” Bailey wrote. “Cheering along the track and extremely loud in the stadium. I think it will be even bigger on the weekend.”
“On Saturday we’ll come out fighting,” promised Green. “The atmosphere was pretty awesome today. The stands were full and the stadium was loud. It’s a good vibe and if today is any indication, we’re going to be in for a fun couple weeks of racing.”
- 2016 IBU World Championships
- Anais Bescond
- Arnd Peiffer
- Brendan Green
- Dunja Zdouc
- Franziska Hildebrand
- Franziska Preuss
- Gabriela Soukalova
- Hannah Dreissigacker
- Johannes Thingnes Bø
- Julia Ransom
- King Harald V
- Lisa Theresa Hauser
- Lowell Bailey
- Marie Dorin Habert
- Marte Olsbu
- Martin Fourcade
- Michal Krcmar
- Michal Slesingr
- mixed relay
- Nathan Smith
- Olena Pidhrushna
- Quentin Fillon Maillet
- Rosanna Crawford
- Sean Doherty
- Sergey Semenov
- Simon Eder. Dominik Landertinger
- Simon Schempp
- Susan Dunklee
- Tarjei Bø
- Tiril Eckhoff
- US Biathlon
- Valj Semerenko
- Veronika Vitkova
Harald has been following cross-country skiing and biathlon for some 20 years since the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville and Lillehammer. A graduate of Middlesex University London and Harvard University, he now lives near the Alps where he likes to go skiing, snowboarding and hiking. He is a former track athlete in middle-distance running, as well as a huge NBA fan.