Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø routinely races with a rifle completely coated from the stock to the barrel in a bright golden paint, and on Thursday, in the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup men’s 20-kilometer individual race in Östersund, Sweden, that display of his ambitions to be the best biathlete in the world didn’t even seem ostentatious.
The 24-year-old, three-time world champion didn’t just win the race, he won by a huge margin distancing the rest of the field by over two minutes.
“This is a big day for me, first win in the individual, I have waited for it and it feels good to now have won every [discipline] in the World Cup,” Bø later said in the IBU press conference. “Today was clean shooting for me and the others made mistakes, and then you get a minute for every mistake and suddenly it’s two minutes.”
Martin Fourcade, the perennial World Cup Total Score leader and last season’s individual discipline World Cup champion, remained clean through three shooting stages and looked to be on his way to another victory, but then the usually dependable French athlete missed two targets in his final standing shooting to incur two penalty minutes (0+0+0+2). Starting a few bibs behind Fourcade, his opponent Bø hit all targets also in the final stage, and with the third-best course time of the day, raced the final lap to a convincing victory.
In the finish Bø had a 2:14.3-minute lead on Fourcade, who, thanks to his fast skiing, managed to claim the third place on the podium.
“Sometimes you can only congratulate the winner and be satisfied with what you get with two mistakes,” Fourcade said at the press conference.
“I think I went too much attack on the last shooting,” Fourcade said in an English interview with German broadcaster ZDF. “I was really concentrated on my first three shootings, I knew what I had to do and it was pretty easy to apply. But in the Iast one I started thinking about clean shooting and a lot of negative thoughts […]. It’s a good lesson for the following races. Anyway, Johannes shot faster than I did today, so I [would have] had no chance to be on the first place even with no mistakes. It was not the result I was expecting, but it’s a quite good start, an OK start.”
Regarding his decision to go all-out on the final lap even though he knew he had a huge lead, Bø explained at the press conference: “I didn’t want to slow down and suddenly there is one guy like Ole Einar [Bjørndalen] coming from behind to beat me, so I tried to race as hard as I could, and that was a good training for the races to come.”
Starting late in bib 80, the 43-year-old veteran Bjørndalen did not seriously challenge Bø in this race, finishing 18th (+3:43.7) with one penalty (1+0+0+0).
Yet Fourcade was bested by his teammate Quentin Fillon Maillet, who placed second after starting a few positions behind him and shooting clean. But ultimately, Maillet had more than a two-minute gap to Bø, finishing 2:01.0 back with no penalties.
“Three yeas ago I had two fourth places and one podium here [in Östersund] so it’s a good place for me,” Fillon Maillet explained at the press conference. “Last year I had a lot of difficulties with my shooting, a lot of mistakes, a lot of penalty loops. So I am happy to start the season with a perfect shooting… I didn’t really change anything important with my shooting, just my head [laughs], something to think during the race. I work very hard to be better, so I am very happy to start with a good result.”
Austria’s Julian Eberhard finished fourth, just three seconds behind Fourcade with one penalty in his final shooting stage (+2:17.5; 0+0+0+1). Russia’s Anton Babikov in fifth (+2:34.1), Switzerland’s Benjamin Weger in seventh (+2:34.1) and Slovenia’s Jakov Fak in 12th place (+2:44.3) were the only other athletes besides Bø and Maillet to hit all 20 targets.
“I think Martin was on the podium in every race last year, so I should do the same to hold him behind me,” Bø joked at the press conference, when asked about wearing the yellow bib of the World Cup Total Score leader for the next race and his chances of winning the Overall World Cup this season.
“I am mostly focused on the Olympics,” Fourcade replied regarding this topic. “If I decide I need to skip some events I will, I already did that in 2014 [ahead of Sochi]. For now I am just focusing on the next competition… Many things to do before the Olympics… I am satisfied with the level I am at today.”
Also questioned by German broadcaster ZDF about recent revelations in the ongoing fight against doping and next week’s pending IOC decision on whether Russian athletes should be allowed to start at the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang or not, Fourcade had this to say:
“Regarding your question about the IOC, they will have a meeting soon and they will decide about the Russian issue. We [the biathletes] have no new information about it. But as an athlete I will keep the same position [as in the past]: I am mostly against collective sanctions, because I am sure there are really good Russian athletes who don’t use doping. Anyway, with what we heard about the Sochi Olympic Games, if it’s true – and the IOC should know that – it’s a big shame, and the ones who were involved need to be punished. You know, it’s strange because in a way I am against collective sanctions, but in another way with all the positive tests in the past year I lost faith. And I am really disappointed about that. You know, I am a big fan of sport, I dream of watching sport on TV. And I think when you lose faith it is not good for the sport. And as an athlete I sometimes lose it, so I can imagine the people on the other side of the TV also must have this feeling. So I know the IOC will take a good solution, but I have not, you know, only one solution, so it’s a pretty hard choice.”
Previously after Fourcade had just crossed the finish line, Russian biathlete Babikov immediately walked over to Fourcade to congratulate him on his race performance.
During last season’s IBU World Championships, there had been some harsh words between Fourcade — an outspoken critic of the use of performance-enhancing drugs and the way the IBU handled the situation following the release of the McLaren report — and some Russian athletes, especially past doping offender Alexander Loginov following the mixed relay race there. In Thursday’s World Cup race, Loginov placed ninth with one penalty (+2:38.1).
Burke 32nd, Doherty 38th for U.S.; Smith 37th for Canada
For the first time in an individual race in several years, US Biathlon started five men, thanks to the men’s team’s strong performance to clinch 10th in last season’s Nation Cup score. (For the Olympics, even the best teams can only start four athletes for the sprint, the pursuit and the individual race, whereas in World Cups, the highest-ranked teams by this score can enter up to six.)
Starting in bib 44, Tim Burke incurred three penalties, all in the first two shooting stages (1+2+0+0), on his way to the 32nd place in his first race of the season, 5:24.2 minutes back to Bø and 3:10 to the podium positions.
“There was some light wind on the range today but we have seen much worse here in the past,” Burke explained in an email to FasterSkier. “The wind was up a little but it stayed pretty consistent from the time that we zeroed [target practice] before the race. I felt like I needed to get some of the rust off in the first two stages after not racing a World Cup since last February. I was simply a bit too conservative and controlling in the first two stages but was able to adjust and shoot more from reaction in the last two stages.”
Burke had the 37th-fastest course time of the day, while his shooting and range time ranked 14th and 13th, respectively.
“Considering everything, I think this was a solid start for me and I feel like I can build from this result,” he summed up his first race day. “After ending last season early due to illness, and taking a long time to get completely healthy again, I definitely had a lot of unknowns heading into this season. That combined with the fact that I have only been here one week and was unable to train on snow the previous 10 days at home, gives me confidence that things are headed in the right direction.”
Starting very early in bib 3, 2016 Junior World champion Sean Doherty placed 38th, 5:50.0 minutes back with two penalties (0+1+0+1).
The other three Americans all finished within 10 seconds of one another. In a field of 108 starters, Leif Nordgren was 63rd, 8:06.0 minutes back with three penalties (1+0+0+2). Lowell Bailey, the 2017 world champion in this discipline, placed 67th (+8:11.0) with four penalties (1+1+0+2) in his first race of the season after having to skip the mixed relay races last weekend due to an illness, and Paul Schommer was 69th (+8:12.3) with four penalties (1+2+0+1).
“Tough start,” Bailey commented on his race, according to a US biathlon press release. “I definitely felt a bit stale today, both on the ski course and in the shooting range. With the fresh snow that fell overnight, the conditions were really challenging and I definitely didn’t feel like I was at my best on the tracks. I’ll regroup tomorrow and start looking toward the next race on Saturday.”
“The first World Cups can be some of the most challenging for our team,” Burke explained in his email. “We have less snow time, less [offseason/pre-season] racing and jet lag to deal with [compared to many competitors], which can be a big hurdle to overcome at the beginning of the season. Luckily it’s a long season!”
The Canadian men couldn’t quite match the peak performance Julia Ransom had achieved a day earlier in the women’s 15 k individual, with a clean shooting performance on her way to a career-best ninth place.
Nathan Smith, who, similar to Bailey had missed last weekend’s mixed relay races with an illness, achieved Biathlon Canada’s best result in 37th place (+5:47.2), just ahead of Doherty. With a light wind blowing from the front or left, Smith cleared 18 of 20 targets and only incurred two penalties in his second shooting stage (0+2+0+0) while firing fast to post the 12th-ranked shooting time of the day.
“Conditions were fairly good by Östersund standards,” Smith wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “Not as perfect as the women’s race yesterday but still pretty good. I’m not sure what happened on my first standing. I felt pretty in control but the misses were quite far out. I think maybe it was a timing thing where I didn’t have a fast enough reaction when it was in the black.”
In contrast to his fast shooting, Smith’s skiing time ranked in the middle of the field of 108 starters, with the 61st-best course time of the day. Last weekend Smith had to cancel a planned start in the single mixed relay race with Rosanna Crawford. In that race, Christian Gow replaced Smith, and Crawford tumbled in a downhilll crash.
“It was nice to get back to racing but on the other hand disappointing to have come down with a cold a few days ago,” Smith explained. “I had been 100% healthy all training year. It didn’t turn into anything too severe thankfully but definitely didn’t help me out at all today. Skiing conditions were really slow (even the winning time). I expect to feel better this weekend in the sprint but will have to be realistic considering the cold and being ‘rusty’ after not racing last year, other than a few races.”
Teammate Christian Gow placed 45th on Thursday (+6:20.2) with one penalt in the final shooting stage (0+0+0+1). His brother Scott Gow placed 53rd (+7:16.1) with four penalties (1+2+0+1), and Brendan Green was 68th (+8:11.5) with five penalty minutes (1+2+0+2).
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.