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SOCHI, Russia — Martin Fourcade described the final loop of Monday’s 12.5-kilometer pursuit as “one of the worst” in his whole life.
That’s a big statement coming from the French biathlete, who, at 25, has five World Championships titles and a silver medal from the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. It’s interesting because he rounded the last 2.5 k loop in the lead, essentially uncontested on his way to his first Olympic victory. Yet he nearly crashed on a tricky descent before the finish; one that tripped up at least four men on Monday and sent at least two of them over the cliff-like edge.
“I knew after the first shooting that I was Olympic champion,” Fourcade said at a post-race press conference.
He also knew nothing was final until he finished, and he could lose it all on the last loop.
Two days ago, Fourcade left the sprint severely disappointed in sixth. A prone penalty took him out of the running for the gold he had been dreaming of for years — at least since 2010 when he placed second in the mass start, 10 seconds behind Russia’s Evgeny Ustyugov.
“Before today I wanted more than I expected in my whole life,” Fourcade said.
Preparing for the night race, he thought about what someone told him last month in Oberhof, Germany: “That I’m often strong after deception,” he said.
Third in the two World Cup races preceding the Oberhof 15 k mass start on Jan. 5, Fourcade came out with a fire, and despite an early miss, he won.
Fourcade faced similar challenges on Monday. Starting 12 seconds behind Norway’s Ole Einar Bjørndalen, who won Saturday’s opening sprint, the Frenchman cut the deficit in half by the first of five laps. From there, he knew he had to shoot clean — or come as close as possible — to shake his competition.
Eight frontrunners entered the range together for the first prone, seven of which cleaned, including Bjørndalen, Russia’s Anton Shipulin (who started fourth) and Canada’s Jean-Philippe Le Guellec (who started fifth), in that order. Austria’s Simon Eder had a single miss and left the stadium in eighth.
The pack had dwindled to six by the second prone, where Le Guellec again cleaned faster than any of his nearby competitors, and Fourcade cleaned as well. Le Guellec lost some ground to the leaders on the third loop, then crashed hard on the downhill corner before the stadium after his ski caught a rut in the soft-and-choppy snow. He broke a ski and had to wait for a replacement (which he got from a Ukrainian wax tech), and ultimately dropped out of podium contention.
Fourcade took charge before the first standing, missing one but hardly missing a beat as he continued to shoot quickly. The second starter, Austria’s Dominik Landertinger, missed one as well, and Jaroslav Soukup of the Czech Republic in third missed two. After a penalty on the second stage, Bjørndalen in fourth had another miss in standing.
Despite the penalty, Fourcade’s master plan was still on track as he led Landertinger into the range for the last time. Landertinger had worked hard to stay within a few seconds of Fourcade, but fumbled his cartridge in the final standing — while Fourcade cleaned.
Landertinger missed two after that, and Fourcade sped off for his nerve-wracking victory loop. He stayed on his feet and finished without anyone in sight in 33:48.6, turning toward the range to blow a kiss after the finish.
“I fight with all these guys all the year in each biathlon World Cup so I knew that if I shoot clean on the last, I will be Olympic champion,” Fourcade said. “I heard that Dominik Landertinger missed so it was all about me.”
After notching the first top 10 of his Olympic career on Saturday (when he placed eighth in the sprint), Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic shot clean for silver, 14.1 seconds behind Fourcade. France’s Jean Guillaume Beatrix notched his first Olympic podium in third, 10 seconds later.
Fourcade said he was most focused on Moravec behind him, but once he realized it was Beatrix holding his own in third ahead of Bjørndalen, he was incredibly happy for him.
“He’s been doing biathlon for 15 years and I think this is amazing for our team,” Fourcade said of his teammate, also 25.
“He also showed great results he was the Junior World champion and today I am the Olympic champion,” he added. “We were disappointed after the sprint and I felt I was the one that had to open the sport for Olympic victories. … All the papers were [reporting] that France hasn’t won any medals yet, and of course it was great that we could do it today.”
After a penalty on the first standing, Beatrix became a podium contender after cleaning the last stage and skiing the fastest last loop.
“I was trying to stay calm and relaxed and as soon as I crossed the finish line, immediately I didn’t realize what had happened then, but gradually, step by step, I realized I was the Olympic bronze medalist,” Beatrix said.
He recalled his initial celebration with Fourcade as nonverbal.
“He looked at me and he gave me a hug,” Beatrix said. “I remember just the smile because we are very happy to share this podium. I think he’s very happy to be the Olympic champion, but maybe a bit more because he shared it with me.”
Moravec, 29, was also ecstatic about the moment and medal, as well as the fact that he cleaned a four-stage race for the second time of his career.
“Before Olympics I say if I am in the top 10 that will be great for me,” Moravec said. “And now I have medaled it’s great.”
He was the second Czech biathlete to medal in this Olympics, following Soukup’s bronze in the sprint.
“In the sprint, it was a big surprise,” Moravec said, referring to Soukup’s mountain-bike accident in August 2012, in which he suffered a concussion, two arm fractures, and spinal injuries. “It was so tough year for him and now he’s back, and for me it’s also super.”
The Czech men’s team gathered at the finish, singing and dancing a national chant: “Kdo neskáče, není Čech.”
“It was perfect for our team that in the second competition in the Olympic Games, we have two medals,” Czech coach Ondrej Rybar said. “For me, this is why I’m doing this, as a coach, because when I have a team just for 10 people that’s in my team, and I think it’s a very good friendship between everyone, and this is the most important thing in the team.”
Bjørndalen, who won Saturday’s sprint to tie for the most medals at any Olympics, finished fourth, 1.7 seconds behind Beatrix. Ustyugov placed fifth, Germany’s Simon Schempp was sixth, Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen was seventh, and Eder placed eighth. Latvia’s Andrejs Rastorgujevs finished ninth and Landertinger ended up 10th with three penalties.
Canada’s Nathan Smith rose from 13th to 11th in his first Olympics, with a single standing penalty, Le Guellec ended up 26th with three misses.
— Nat Herz contributed reporting