After both athletes had lunged over the finish line and fallen down, France’s Martin Fourcade initially thought he just lost an exciting finish sprint against Germany’s Simon Schempp in the men’s 15-kilometer mass on Sunday night at the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
He slammed his pole into the snow and shook his head in anguish. Not again.
Almost exactly the same had already happened to Fourcade four years ago at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, as he narrowly lost a sprint finish for the gold medal in the mass start to Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen.
“I was sure that Simon did it,” Fourcade said of Schempp at Sunday’s post-race press conference. “It was just because four years ago in Sochi, Emil did me a lot of pain, and tonight I was sure that history was repeating again.”
“I didn’t know who was in front of the other, and Martin as well,” Schempp recalled at the press conference. “So we were both waiting.”
During the race Fourcade had incurred two penalty laps (1+0+0+1) while Schempp had missed just one target (0+0+0+1). However, Fourcade made up for that by skiing the fastest course time of the day.
But while they both had finished with the same time of 35:47.3 minutes, the photo-finish image evaluated by the race jury for about a minute would prove they were not exactly even: Fourcade had moved the tip of his boot just about half a foot before his opponent over the line.
Now it was Schempp who looked a bit frustrated, tilting up his head and letting out a sigh after he saw the official result on the big video wall. But that feeling did not last for long, with pride about the strong performance he had just shown after a difficult season and the happiness about his first Olympic medal in an individual-start race in his third Olympics taking over.
“For me, it was not too hard; I was happy to get one of these three medals,” Schempp said.
“Of course I am enormously happy,” he had previously told German broadcaster ZDF immediately after the race, according to a translation. “I had to wait a long time for this, and now until the last individual-start race. I think it was incredibly suspenseful for all viewers.”
Behind them the above-mentioned 2014 Olympic gold medalist Svendsen placed third to claim the bronze medal this time, 11.2 seconds out of first, with two penalties. He was on the winning side of a final sprint with Schempp’s teammate Erik Lesser, who placed fourth (+11.6), with two penalties. Germany’s third man in the top five, Benedikt Doll finished another few seconds back in fifth (+18.8), with one penalty, only slowing in the last 100 meters after he realized third and fourth place were out of reach.
Fourcade Starts on Wrong Foot
Initially the race had not started out well for Fourcade, with little indication that he could end the day with his historic fourth Olympic gold medal.
On the first loop, he led the mass start field of only 30 athletes, comprised of the medal winners from the previous sprint, pursuit and individual races in PyeongChang, as well as the other top 15 in the current World Cup Total Score standings and filled up with the next-best performers of the last week not among those two groups.
It was truly an elite field, including all seven different biathletes who had become International Biathlon Union (IBU) world champion in the mass start discipline in the last seven iterations.
The whole pack stayed close together within a few seconds, with Germany’s Lesser bringing up the back, not investing any energy with fruitless maneuvers to gain a few positions.
In the first prone shooting stage, 14 athletes remained clean while Fourcade missed a target, forcing him to ski a penalty lap. Then as he returned to the course, he stumbled briefly when his ski caught a V-board and he fell on his behind. He left the range in 19th position and 25 seconds behind South Korea’s Timofey Lapshin, who was leading into the next loop to the delight of local fans in the stands.
But Fourcade quickly narrowed the gap on the next loop, and after a clean second prone shooting had moved up to eighth place, less than ten seconds behind Germany’s Doll, who had led the field for large parts of the prior loop and now also kept that position after the shooting stage.
In that second prone, one of the presumed favorites and 15 k individual winner Johannes Thingnes Bø of Norway ruined his race with three penalties, falling back to 27th and almost 1:15 out of first. He eventually finished 16th (+1:20.0) after cleaning the remaining standing stages (0+3+0+0).
Obviously having very fast skis, all four German athletes in the race stayed at or near the top throughout the next loop.
“The way they were able to aggressively put their mark on this race, all four of them, from the first to the last loop … we surely didn’t expect that considering this level of competition,” German men’s head coach Mark Kirchner later told ZDF.
After again shooting clean in the first standing while Doll incurred a penalty, Fourcade took the lead going out on the course, with Schempp and Lesser followed within two seconds of him.
On the third loop, Fourcade, Schempp and Lesser pushed hard for a high tempo and swapped leads several times. The gap to a group led by Czech Republic’s Ondrej Moravec and Austria’s Simon Eder ballooned after Eder had been less than 7 seconds behind leaving the range. At a split time following the longest climb, the group clocked in 24 seconds behind, and that time back grew to 30 seconds on that loop.
Just before the range, Lesser and Schempp briefly looked at each other, then Lesser increased the frequency pushing hard for a few meters to move into first, knowing that would give him the first-lane position on the shooting range. From years of racing against each other, the German athletes were aware Fourcade often prefers to have that position in a final shooting as a demonstration of confidence, so it might have been a little psychological trick to irritate him.
But Lesser’s race tactic did not exactly work out, as all three failed to clean their targets in the final shooting. Fourcade and Schempp both had to ski one penalty lap, while Lesser missed two shots and came back on the course in fifth, just behind teammate Doll and Norway’s Svendsen, who had both managed to hit all targets to move back into podium contention.
About 20 seconds ahead, Fourcade kept the speed fairly high leading in front of Schempp throughout the loop, but did not attempt one of his signature ferocious attacks up a climb for which he is feared by his opponents.
“I thought about a few scenarios how this could play out,” Schempp told ZDF, according to a translation. “I knew either he attacks on the first very steep and long climb, but there he only pushed the tempo and I could stay with him. And then he rather decelerated and I knew I had not other choice but stay behind him in his draft to save some energy for the finish stretch, because my current shape is not good enough to try and get away from him. … So then I knew it would end in a finish sprint. I tried to push hard into the downhill maybe taking the momentum with me, but unfortunately that was not enough.”
“I tried to be faster than Simon in the first part of the loop, but he was still in my skis,” Fourcade said of the last loop. “So then I knew it will be a tight finish. I gave everything I had, but I know that Simon is a really good sprinter and that is not my main quality.”
On the final downhill, Fourcade led the duo into the arena with Schempp drafting behind him. Fourcade briefly stumbled in the final right turn but retained his balance, not losing much speed. Entering the finishing straight, Schempp initially motioned toward a lane to the left of Fourcade, but when Fourcade veered that way as well before picking the center Schempp switched over to the right lane and poled all-out.
“I chose my corridor late because earlier this season in Hochfilzen [in the pursuit’s finishing race for third place] I did it a bit early, and then he went right into the one I wanted to go in as well,” Schempp told ZDF. “I still had that in the back of my mind.”
“Our last sprint in Hochfilzen together was not a fair one,” Fourcade recalled of the same race, unprompted in his interview with ZDF. “And I thought during the final loop, ‘Beat him, but just do it in a fair way,’ because Simon is one of the best opponents I fight with. So thanks Simon for this fight, and it makes my gold more valuable.”
“Choosing the finish stretch corridor, that’s the prerogative of the athlete who has pushed the tempo on the final loop,” Schempp explained in an interview with ZDF later in the evening. “So I could ski behind him, save a bit of energy, and in turn he gets that advantage. Poetic justice.”
With the finish line approaching, Schempp managed to pole closer and finally next to the French athlete. “I felt that Simon was taking me meter after meter,” Fourcade recalled at the press conference.
Both athletes lunged far as they approached the line, and with slightly higher velocity Schempp seemed to move past Fourcade as they slid and fell, causing Fourcade’s frustrated initial reaction as he looked over and saw the German coming to a stop slightly ahead of him.
“After the finish line I thought I was in his back,” Fourcade told ZDF.
But as the photo finish revealed, right on the line Fourcade had still been in front by about half the length of his foot this time and was the lucky winner.
Any signs of initial frustration from Schempp were quickly replaced as he celebrated with his teammates and staff who rushed to congratulate him, and later was hoisted up on their shoulders.
“The finish line came maybe five meters too early for me,” Schempp told ZDF. “But still, I am also totally happy and satisfied about silver. It was a suspenseful competition, and I am so glad it worked out. … I have had a few photo finishes in my career when I was in first, and now it’s the other way around. Martin was incredibly strong on the course today, and he had one more penalty than me, so he also fought enormously for gold, and I did my best.”
Behind them, Lesser had tried to attack up the last big climb to break away from Norway’s Svendsen and his teammate Doll, but Svendsen managed to stay on his ski tails and in the finish sprint claimed the bronze medal by 0.4 seconds. It was his fourth individual medal in four Olympics (plus one gold medal in the men’s relay in 2010).
Four years ago at the Sochi Olympics, Svendsen had won the gold medal just ahead of Fourcade, as Fourcade recalled at the press conference.
“It means very much, it’s been really bad Olympic Games for me,” Svendsen said in the press conference when asked about his bronze medal. “So I didn’t really believe in a medal at all. When I came into a position to get a medal I really fought hard. And to be on the podium with these guys, it’s a very good feeling.”
When the experienced podium finishers were asked about their “secret” for a finish sprint, Svendsen added: “For me, I was thinking a lot about Marit Bjørgen from yesterday, what she did on the last few hundred meters [when] she didn’t allow the Swedish girl to catch her. That helped me a lot today, maybe that was the key to beating Lesser and Doll.”
Disappointed, Lesser initially did not talk to German media following the race. Only several hours later, he posted an image of him hugging Schempp after the race and superimposed with the words “in the end the only thing left for me is to congratulate” to his Facebook fan page, adding a paragraph that according to a loose translation reads:
“Wow!!! That was tight, annoying, hammer, humbling, pleasant, unbelievable, mega, crass, semi, phenomenal… no one has a leg up on our team. Everyone on our team is now individual-race World Champion and in possession of an individual-race Olympic medal. No other team can show that off.”
On his Instagram account he wrote in English “Once again #wtf !!! It’s amazing to be part of this great team” to a photo of the team’s coaches and staff hoisting up Schempp.
“Another really strong shooting performance, just one miss, that is great,” Doll told ZDF right after the race. “For two loops I skied at the top of the field, so that gives me some self-confidence … On the final lap, that kind of head-to-head duel isn’t really my strength, unfortunately I couldn’t win that today. It was difficult, even though we had the better ski today. We could have made a little more out of that, me and Erik, but that’s just the way it is.”
Making History Instead of History Repeating Itself
For Fourcade it was the fourth Olympic title of his career. In the mass start he had already won silver in both the 2010 Vancouver and 2015 Sochi Olympics. He now also has a gold medal in each non-relay discipline (sprint, pursuit, 15 k individual, and mass start).
“Today I am so satisfied because I was second eight years ago in Vancouver in the mass start, I was second four years ago, and today I finally win this competition,” Fourcade said at the press conference. “So I am really proud.”
As an added bonus, Fourcade is now tied with two French fencers for having won the most gold medals at either a Summer or Winter Olympic Games in the history of his country with six total.
“That’s something really incredible. I grew up watching biathlon on TV and sport at the Olympics, so being the best French Olympian ever is something I am really proud of,” Fourcade said at the press conference. “But then you need to compare, because if I was Norwegian I would not be the best Olympian ever.”
“After effort and suspense Martin Fourcade makes us tremble and dream a second time by winning a new gold medal for France. A legend of the Olympic Winter Games and biathlon,” French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on his official Twitter account, according to a translation, alongside with an image of the photo finish.
Deep Respect for Each Other
Fourcade’s opponent Schempp had not been in optimal health going into these championships after dealing with persistent back problems that forced him to miss several races on the 2017/2018 World Cup competition calendar. So in the end he was happy that despite losing out on gold so narrowly, he had been able to reach his first Olympic medal in a non-relay race. Last year, Schempp had won gold in the mass start at the 2017 World Championships, back then also his first title excluding relays.
“I wasn’t really afraid [of the back injury returning], I was just hoping it would hold up,” Schempp told ZDF in a studio interview later Sunday evening. “It was very tedious and often also frustrating in January, because I did a lot to get it under control and a lot of people helped me with that. … But then 10 days before we flew over here, I just thought, ‘Woah, I don’t know if it will work out like this, if that will be enough.’ But then shortly before [the races] it got enormously better, there was a big leap, but I still didn’t know how it would be in the stress of a competition. … Until now it was pretty good and I hope it stays that way.”
In his interviews right after the race, Fourcade had been very congratulatory of how hard his opponents had made it for him and how highly the won medal ranks for him.
“I must apologize to the German fans because I know how much I disappointed them tonight,” Fourcade told ZDF. “But Simon is one of my best opponents. When I was on the podium with Simon and Emil I told them that I could not have a [better] podium for me tonight. It was the best podium I could hope for. You know, Simon is an incredible champion, and I am so proud I beat him in the sprint.”
“We are on very good terms, and two years ago I have visited him at home,” Schempp later said of Fourcade to ZDF. “In general we get along very well. Maybe not so great on the tracks, but later in the finish, respectively before competitions. Of course he also has this crazy killer instinct and can assess race situations very well.”
The close race also brought up memories of past events with an end like this.
At the 2003 World Championships in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, two gold medals had been awarded in the women’s pursuit race to France’s Sandrine Bailly and Germany’s Martina Glagow after the photo finish had been deemed too close to call.
But with the help of more modern technology there was a visible difference this time, and the German team readily accepted that when questioned if they thought it was fair that after a 15 k race you lose an Olympic gold medal merely by inches.
“I think there are plenty of other sports were decisions are this close,” coach Kirchner told ZDF. “If you think about alpine skiing where races also get decided by hundredth of a second, or in others like bobsledding even by a thousandth, that’s the way it is. The athletes know they are fighting for every second, and in the end there has to be a winner. When the clock is running you know that it’s fair, there is no subjective judging.”
No North Americans qualified for the top-30 men’s mass start field at these Olympics.
The biathlon competitions in PyeongChang continue with the mixed relay on Tuesday at 8:15 p.m. local time. (6:15 a.m. EST).
— Jason Albert contributed reporting