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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Emil Hegle Svendsen, the Norwegian biathlete who took two golds home from Vancouver, British Columbia, four years ago, knew exactly how Tuesday’s 15-kilometer mass start was going to play out — or so he said.
Once the men got a start off without fog, rain or snow further delaying their already pushed-back race (it was delayed five times from its original start on Sunday night), Svendsen executed as he’d envisioned, conserving in the thickly falling, wet, boggy snow, then attacking when it counted.
After making his move up the last steep climb before the stadium, Svendsen, 28, hadn’t quite shaken Martin Fourcade. In fact, he was still behind the Frenchman who had already won two gold medals at these Olympics.
Svendsen had overtaken Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic, but he had his work cut out for him trailing Fourcade down the finishing straight, with a 180-degree turn that doubles back on itself before the finish.
Yet the man known as “Super” Svendsen saved himself for that excruciatingly long stretch. He had stayed consistently at the front of the pack, yet conserved throughout the five-lap race.
Following Fourcade into the stadium for the last time, he eyed the final corner. The inside lane was what he wanted, and conveniently, Fourcade chose the outside.
“I noticed that the left track was better than the right and Martin chose the right, luckily for me,” Svendsen said in a post-race press conference.
Turning tightly around the corner, the Norwegian emerged from it with the lead. Fourcade followed and the two “sprinted” toward the finish — looking as if they were moving in slow motion in the consuming snow. Behind them, Moravec skied alone for bronze, finishing 13.8 seconds later.
While Svendsen led the drag race, he also let up before the finish, pumping his arms into the air a few meters before the line. Fourcade took advantage of the premature celebration and lunged from behind — leaving the gold to be determined by a photo finish.
Svendsen was sure he had it and continued celebrating in the finishing pen.
“Even though it looked like I might lose the gold, I actually had quite good control on him,” Svendsen said. “I knew on the last few hundred meters that I would get the gold. It looked closer than it was.”
Fourcade, who won his third medal in four individual races at the Sochi Games, had a slightly different take on it.
“We did exchange glances throughout the race,” he said. “It was a suspense; we didn’t know ’til the end who would finish first.”
To Fourcade’s credit, he gave credit where credit was due.
“I think he has as better engine than I do, figuratively speaking,” Fourcade said. “He was a fraction ahead of me on the ski, but I did everything that I could. Anyway, he won, but I’m pretty happy with myself. … I was always very close.”
“Martin is first of all, a good guy, very honest, and when he loses he’s a much better guy than I am when I lose,” Svendsen said. “I can be a big a**hole when I lose.”
Personalities aside, Svendsen had cleaned on a day where only two men out of 30 starters managed to do so. Three didn’t finish (Italy’s Lukas Hofer, Canada’s Nathan Smith, and Fourcade’s older brother Simon), after each missed two on the opening prone (Smith made it to the second stage, where he missed three, and Hofer completed three stages with four penalties).
Approaching the range for the first time, three Norwegians — Svendsen, Johannes Thingnes Bø and Ole Einar Bjørndalen — made a point to box Fourcade out.
Fourcade missed one on the first prone, leaving the stadium in 23rd, 36.5 seconds behind Russia’s Anton Shipulin up front. Svendsen cleaned and followed Shipulin in second, 2.9 seconds back. Bø had one penalty and left the range in 16th, and Bjørndalen missed two and fell back to 24th.
One lap later, Fourcade was up to 16th after posting the sixth-fastest course time the second time around. Svendsen was the lone Norwegian within 40 seconds of the lead.
Svendsen cleaned again to leave the range first, 0.4 seconds ahead of Canada’s Jean-Philippe Le Guellec in second. Le Guellec cleaned all but the final stage to finish 10th, falling off the pace in the third lap and ultimately finishing 1:12.5 behind Svendsen. Shipulin missed one on each of the last three stages to place 11th.
Meanwhile, the race heated up on the third lap between Svendsen, Moravec and Fourcade, respectively. Moravec was on his way to cleaning a four-stage race for the second time in his life (after winning silver in the preceding Olympic pursuit), and skied in second until the late in the final loop, when Svendsen attacked.
Fourcade cleaned to jump to third after the first standing, then first after the second. Over the five laps, his course time was the fastest; Svendsen’s ranked fourth. But the Norwegian turned it up when it counted.
“My tactic was, on the first loops, to just stay behind and catch an easy travel, and if I had any power I would start to push harder on the last loops,” Svendsen said.
“After the last shooting, I saw those two guys go away,” Moravec said. “After Emil on that uphill go so hard and my reaction was nothing, after that I said, good, it’s bronze medal. For me it’s something like gold because today again I shoot clear.”
After Svendsen, the 20-year-old Bø placed eighth with one penalty for Norway — his first top 10 at his debut Olympics.
“[Svendsen] was not happy about not getting medals; he had his last chance,” Bø said. “Now he’s in the top again and will be laughing and smiling the rest of the day.”
Bjørndalen, 40, ended up 22nd after missing four on the last stage for six total penalties. The gold medalist in the first race of the Sochi Games (the 10 k sprint), Bjørndalen told FasterSkier the snow didn’t mess up his shooting or get in his sights, “It was only me.”
Unsure of how many penalty laps he was supposed to do, he waved at the counters. “I was not sure if I go three or four penalties,” he said.
Fortunately for the Norwegians, the wax wasn’t a factor, and Svendsen said he owed a huge thanks to their service team.
“They have been struggling a lot on the last week, as you see with both biathlon and cross-country,” he said. “Today was perfect and we’re back where we’re supposed to be.”
Sweden’s Björn Ferry, who finished 12th with three penalties, was surprised Svendsen didn’t ski all the way through the finish — a move that nearly cost him.
“I always go like this,” Ferry said, acting out a lunge. “I use my 46 size [feet].”
After the race, a multiple World Cup winner, Austria’s 38-year-old Christoph Sumann pushed his way through the finish and skipped out on interviews, telling race officials: “I’m wet, and I’m cold, and I want to go inside.”
“[It was] one of the hardest races I ever did, and believe me, I did a lot,” he said. “I couldn’t open my eyes any more on the downhill.”
— Nat Herz contributed reporting