Johannes Thingnes Bø came into these Olympics as a definite favorite, right up there with Martin Fourcade. But PyeongChang quickly humbled the 24-year-old Norwegian, just as it did Fourcade, in the first race of the 2018 Winter Games. There, in the men’s 10-kilometer sprint, Fourcade finished eighth, missing three out of five in his first shooting stage, and Bø had the same problem with prone — missing three then shooting another penalty in standing — to end up 31st. It was the kind of result no one saw coming after those two had taken first or second in every non-relay World Cup race this season (except for one, the sprint that Bø’s older brother Tarjei Bø won on Dec. 2 in Östersund, Sweden).
The men’s second biathlon race of the Games, the 15 k pursuit, saw Fourcade back to his winning ways while Johannes Bø finished 21st.
“We both [knew] before the Olympics that it will not be only a fight between us, because we know the shooting range [here] is challenging,” Fourcade said when asked about Bø in a press conference after the pursuit. “I thought that at our best level, we could be difficult to beat but the wind and the Olympic situation will bring many opportunities for outsiders to take competition… It’s not a competition about Johannes today. It’s biathlon.”
Three days later in the men’s 20 k individual race on Thursday, Bø overcame any doubts and won his first Olympic medal in his second Games. It was gold, and he had achieved it with a time that stood up against 85 others in the men’s field. Even with two penalties that added two minutes to his final time (there are no penalty laps in the individual-format race), Bø finished the 20 k in 48:03.8 minutes and he posted the fastest overall course time of 43:11.4 in the process.
Despite his two previous races in PyeongChang, Bø — the overall World Cup leader in the 20 k individual — explained in a post-race press conference on Thursday that he never got down on himself.
“After the two done races, I just let my shoulders down, and I knew there were still two great opportunities for me, individual and mass start,” he said. “Two races I have won before this season, so I knew that there still was a chance even if the sprint and pursuit was my favorite before the Olympics. So I always had the belief that I could do it. And you only need one chance, so if I missed out today there would still be a chance on the mass start, and I always believed that I could make it.”
He started Thursday’s individual race in bib 9 and was one of several of the top contenders who chose an early start because of more favorable conditions earlier in the day. It was the warmest race day yet at the Alpensia biathlon venue, and perhaps most importantly, less windy than it had been. At least that was the case early in the 20 k; the wind picked up as the race wore on.
Bø took the attention away from himself early in the race after missing one in the first prone stage — his third shot. That put him in seventh at the time and ultimately 52nd overall. From that point on, Bø quietly worked his way back into contention, cleaning the next two stages, then missing shot in the last standing stage. But because of his speediness out on the course, he still left the range in first.
In the finishing stretch, Bø nearly took himself out as his pole tip nicked his left ski. But he stayed upright, recollected himself and continued charging to the line. There, he finished 1:22.1 minutes clear of the previous race leader, Sweden’s Fredrik Lindström.
“I put my pole right down on my ski,” Bø told NRK after, according to a translation. “Two to three [centimeters] to the left and I would’ve put the pole on the inside of the ski, but it would’ve went well anyway, but you never know.”
As the rest of the starters embarked on the five-loop course and navigated the four shooting stages, it became evident that no one was going to touch Bø. He sat inside the leader’s cubicle at the venue, which had a small couch and TV to watch the rest of the race, along with a race-leader camera documenting his every move. He wasn’t glued to the screen by any means. It was probably hard for him to watch.
Initially, Fourcade came closest to him, finishing 42.4 seconds off his time in second place. The Frenchman had been on track for his second-straight gold after cleaning the first three stages of Thursday’s race, but he missed his last two shots to slip to second behind Bø. And he couldn’t beat the Norwegian on the last loop; despite skiing the second-fastest final loop and second-fastest overall course time, Fourcade was still second to Bø, who was the fastest on both.
“That was like a gift,” Bø said at the press conference of Fourcade’s uncharacteristic late misses. “Even if he only had missed one of the two last [shots] he would have been the winner. But, you know, someone will miss one in the first shooting and one in the last, and others make two mistakes on the last shooting, so you just have to see for the total. And we both had two mistakes today and I was a little bit faster than him and that saved my result.”
Fourcade as the 23rd starter was later bumped off the podium by Austria’s Dominik Landertinger (bib 38) and Sweden’s Sebastien Samuelsson (bib 51), respectively. While Landertinger hung on for the medals, Samuelsson missed his second-consecutive Olympic medal in fourth place (+29.1), 14.9 seconds behind Landertinger.
While Landertinger had shot a perfect 20-for-20 and Samuelsson was one off that mark with a single penalty (0+0+1+0), the 57th starter, Slovenia’s Jakov Fak finished ahead of them both and just 5.5 seconds behind Bø for the silver medal. Like Landertinger, who earned bronze (+14.2), Fak was one of just three men who cleaned all four stages on Thursday. (Ukraine’s Artem Tyshchenko, who finished 29th, was the other.)
Once Fak finished, Bø could finally exhale and celebrate. He had done it.
“After the first shooting, I still believed that a medal could be won, could be possible, but after the last standing I thought I missed out on the podium,” Bø reflected at the press conference.
“I’m glad I fought through the final lap even with two misses,” he told NRK. “Because I thought the medals wouldn’t be possible, but I felt good, and I had no problems with changing gears out in the course. And thank God I did, because I ended up with the gold in the end.”
Bø’s previous Olympic best was fourth in the men’s relay at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He is a three-time world champion and won three golds at biathlon Junior World Championships, two of which came in relays in 2012 and 2013. Between that time of transitioning from the junior ranks to the World Cup in 2013, Bø became best known as the young and hard-charging biathlete with the gold-painted rifle. He later painted it pink, before going back to gold in the leadup to PyeongChang.
“I had a pink rifle for two years and I wanted to change it before the Olympics,” Bø said at the press conference. “The first season I came into the World Cup I had a golden rifle.”
After stepping back outside and into the stadium, Bø began to tear up. He finally connected with his brother Tarjei, who had finished 13th with two penalties, and they embraced in a special moment.
“It’s a great feeling,” Bø said of what it’s like to be an Olympic champion. “To describe with one word is just ‘amazing’. It’s every nice words you can find.”
For Fak, 30, who missed all but two World Cup races last season because of health issues, he said the silver medal was a “dream come true.” Earlier this season, he placed second in two World Cup pursuits.
“At the last Olympics in Sochi, I was sick before the Olympic Games,” Fak said at the press conference. “I fought until the last race to get some medals and my best result was fourth place in the mass start, so I missed it and it was a big struggle for me, the last two seasons were very hard. I was sick all the time. Last season I had only two starts on the World Cup and it would be better if I didn’t even have them. I had really a lot of problems and to come back into the whole season was a very big victory for me.”
After different illnesses plagued him last year — “I would train for two weeks and another sickness would come,” he recalled — Fak considered hanging up his rifle and quitting the sport. But his coach encouraged him to stick with it.
“We made a good plan. It was not to be on the highest level on the World Cup, but just to come back,” Fak explained. “And everything that I’ve done this season, the podiums, are just a big bonus for me.”
Landertinger, 29, earned his second Olympic bronze after helping Austria to third in the men’s relay in Sochi. He also has a relay silver from 2010 in Vancouver, British Columbia, but Thursday marked his first individual Olympic medal.
In September, he had back surgery to repair a herniated disc, and he didn’t start his World Cup season until early last month.
“I am really overwhelmed,” Landertinger told Austrian broadcaster ORF, according to a translation. “The last year was extremely tough. During the last races I already was a little bit despaired, and now the bronze medal, that is crazy. On the course I again did not feel good today, but I fought and put out everything I could. There were a lot of beautiful moments in my career, this medal was the most difficult one. Today I had to do it with the shooting, and that worked out.”
Fourcade ended up fifth on the day (+42.4), Switzerland’s Benjamin Weger placed sixth (+48.6) with one penalty, the Czech Republic’s Michal Krčmář finished seventh (+1:15.5) with one miss, and Lindström was eighth (+1:22.1) with one penalty as well.
Scott Gow’s Career-Best 14th
In his first Olympics, Canada’s Scott Gow raced to 14th (+2:02.5) for his best Olympic result by nearly 50 places after finishing 61st in the PyeongChang sprint. Gow cleaned three-consecutive stages then missed his first shot on the final standing (0+0+0+1) to slip out of the top 10. Regardless, 14th was still better than his career-best World Cup result after he had finished 16th in two races this season.
“I was very happy with it,” Gow said of his result in a post-race interview with FasterSkier. “A little disappointed to miss that one standing shot, especially when everything was going quite well in the range. Skiing was pretty good, and so overall I am very happy.”
Without having spoken with his coach yet, Gow wasn’t exactly sure where his lone miss went wrong, but he guessed it was a close one.
“I have a feeling that I missed it just high,” the 27 year old said. “That’s usually where I miss in standing, especially when it feels good. If it feels like it was good, if it feels like it was hit, I probably missed it just high.”
With weaker and less variable wind than in previous biathlon races this week, Gow said that presented a new challenge.
“When it’s this calm, relatively as calm, everyone can shoot well,” he observed. “So that puts a little extra pressure and emphasis on myself to shoot well. So going into today I knew that would be have to the focus, to hit targets, because even if my skiing is a little off I can make up for it with a really good shooting. And that was what was going through my head the last few days preparing for this.”
Looking ahead to the remaining races in PyeongChang, Gow said the hardest ones were over.
“Now it’s the relays,” he said. “And my body feels like it’s in fairly good shape. I was happy with my skiing today, and again, my shooting was much better today and it has been good all week. So as long as I can maintain a good training mode and a good training rhythm, I think it will be good, and I am optimistic.”
Canada had three in the top 30 with Brendan Green in 22nd (+2:26.6), with a single miss in the last stage (0+0+0+1), and Christian Gow in 26th (+2:57.2), with two penalties (1+0+0+1). For 24-year-old Christian Gow in his first Olympics, it was a big improvement from 62nd in the sprint.
“I think I kind of reset after the sprint. It was not even close to what I wanted,” Christian, Scott’s younger brother, told FasterSkier after. “But I guess what I realized kind of internalizing that race is that I am not defined by one race that I had. Of course of all the times that you want to perform is the Olympic Games. It was a bit of a bummer, and I looked at it as a chance to refocus for the races to come, obviously including this one.
“I was very happy with my effort,” Christian said before he knew his final result. “I felt like I had good energy on skis and was able to push the whole time, and more than anything I am just happy with what I did out there today.”
Green, 31, was also pleased with his performance after placing 82nd in the sprint four days ago.
“I was a little worried going into today after the sprint. I mean, the sprint you had the wind, but I also had a pretty rough day on the skis as well,” he told FasterSkier. “So I was a little bit worried as to how today would play out, but I did a good race prep yesterday. I didn’t have a ton of guys to ski with today, but there were always people kind of within sight … I just tried to keep a pace that I could maintain and really focus on the shooting range.
“I think I was really able to capitalize on these less-windy conditions that we finally had today,” Green said. “And to get away with one miss, that’s a good day for sure.”
In his fourth Olympics, Tim Burke was the top American in 41st (+4:01.9), a result he wasn’t happy with, after shooting four penalties (1+1+0+2).
“The strategy is always the same: it’s just to execute the game plan, and tonight I struggled with that on the range,” he told FasterSkier after. “I felt like I was decent on the skis, not great but not bad. … I felt like I tried to follow through with my plan, and some days it’s easier than others. And today it didn’t work out.”
Sean Doherty followed in 44th (+4:21.8) with three penalties (2+0+1+0).
“Prone has continued to have a few gremlins in it for me,” the 22-year-old two-time Olympian said. “I worked on it the last couple days in training, but I mean, today was less wind and I was looking forward to that, so I still have just a couple things to work out with it. Standing was great, felt super solid, skied well. You know, those two out of three categories went well, so prone is just continuing to plague me. It’s unfortunate.”
Lowell Bailey, the defending world champion in the 20 k individual, finished 51st (+4:53.0) after missing his first two shots of the day in the first prone then incurring two additional penalties (2+1+0+1). The four penalties added four minutes to his time.
Afterwards, Bailey was beside himself.
“I think shock is really the only way to describe it, completely shocked to miss those two,” he told FasterSkier. “I’ve never started an individual [race] like that. I felt really good about the shooting going into this, I had a game plan, I really felt like I had everything — I had a good plan, it just didn’t work out.
“I knew the shooting conditions were more to my liking today and I felt really good about my training leading into it, especially on the shooting range, I felt like this was the race I had a good chance to do well in,” he continued. “The wind got me. It was just enough to push me out on the right side. The wind’s tricky here, sometimes it doesn’t register as strong as it actually is, so missing two shots right off the bat, that’s just a really tough way to start the race.”
At that point, he said he had two options.
“You can decide to give it your best because you’re representing your country or you can throw in the towel,” Bailey said. “And I think if there’s one thing I can take away from this race it’s that I never gave up.”
The fourth American finisher, Leif Nordgren placed 64th (+6:27.3) with five penalties (1+1+3+0). Canada’s Nathan Smith ended the race in 81st (+8:11.9) with five misses as well (0+1+4+0).
“I think it was a shooting race today,” Smith noted. “That was my focus. I felt comfortable taking it a little bit easier on the tracks. Unfortunately my third shooting, my second prone, was a disaster. I don’t know what happened. Other than that, my shooting was excellent. I’ll have to ask [coach Matthias Ahrens]. I was adjusting and I don’t know, [the targets] wouldn’t go down that time.”
Moving forward, Smith said he would take it easy in the days leading up to the relay next week. The mixed relay (2 women, 2 men per team) is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 20 and the men’s 4 x 7.5 k relay — the last biathlon race of the Games — is next Friday, Feb. 23.
No North Americans qualified for the 30-athlete mass start, with the men’s 15 k mass start taking place on Sunday.
— Jason Albert, Gabby Naranja, Harald Zimmer, and Aleks Tangen contributed