Arnd Peiffer’s race day before the men’s 10-kilometer sprint at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang began anything but ideal, not giving any indication that it would end as one of the luckiest days in the athletic career of the German, standing at the top of the podium and flanked by Michal Krčmář of the Czech Republic in second and Italy’s Dominik Windisch in third place.
“Shortly before ski testing, the bolt on my rifle broke. Then I slipped outside the wax cabin [on a flight of stairs] and badly bruised my elbow,” Peiffer told German broadcaster ARD about a series of mishaps that also included a cut to his hand, a forgotten key for his rifle storage locker and a poor warmup. “Somehow nothing was really working as planned, but then in the race everything did.”
About an hour before the race during dry firing target practice (without loaded ammunition clips), the bolt on Peiffer’s rifle that triggers the shots just snapped. On short notice the weapon had to be disassembled and the bolt replaced with the help of men’s head coach Mark Kirchner (a successful biathlete himself with a gold medal in the sprint and two in relays at the 1992 and 1994 Olympics), a problem that according to Peiffer “happens about once every six months to a year… That’s not so bad, but something you don’t really want to occur right before a race”.
“I am generally not superstitious at all,” Peiffer recounted during an interview with ARD in the Olympic broadcasting center late Sunday night. “But Mark told me, ’22 is a good bib number, I once became world champion with that… And [teammate Erik Lesser] also had a broken bolt before the individual race at the  Olympics in Sochi when he shot clean four times and won silver, that was surely a good omen.’ I was like, yeah, that won’t help me today either.”
Yet after he had started his race, Peiffer was indeed the lucky one, hitting 10-for-10 shots in every bit as difficult wind conditions as the day before during the women’s sprint when his teammate Laura Dahlmeier won gold, while the presumed favorites such as France’s Martin Fourcade and Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø missed too many targets to contend for the medals.
In his prone shooting, Peiffer reacted correctly to a strong gust of wind from the left side of the range, adjusting his sights with several clicks on his rifle. Then in the standing shooting he took advantage of manageable conditions to shoot in rhythm and again remained clean. On the final loop he skied the 10th-fastest time (18th overall), crossing the line in a time of 23:38.8 minutes. That mark would not be beaten anymore by the 65 athletes starting behind him.
“I have waited a long time for this individual medal,” he said during his in-studio interview with ARD. “I won one in 2011 [at IBU World Championships] and since then had a few chances that I didn’t take advantage of, and sometimes didn’t have any chance at all. So that it worked out today, with a pretty mediocre course time, is a gift that I am very grateful for.”
It was Peiffer’s first individual medal at Olympics, following a silver medal in the men’s relay in Sochi and no podium in Vancouver in 2010. Most of the World Cup successes for the 30-year-old biathlete have been in sprints, and he won the title in this discipline at the 2011 World Championships in Khanty Mansiysk, Russia. His first World Championship medals also came in PyeongChang, back in 2009, when he took bronze with the relay and mixed relay, which he fondly remembered.
“I am honestly completely surprised that my result was so amazing, that I am standing at the very top,” he had told ARD right after the race. “I am just happy about my performance, because in Vancouver and Sochi I twice had a bad sprint [finishing outside the top 30]… So for today I just was determined to have a good one, have a good shooting performance, and if it had been a sixth place I’d also have been happy.”
The silver medal in Sunday’s sprint went to Krčmář, who also hit 10-for-10 and finished 4.4 seconds shy of Peiffer’s time. Starting behind Peiffer in the middle of the field, that clean shooting performance opened a window of opportunity to wedge himself between the times set by Peiffer and Windisch, who ultimately placed third (+7.7) with one penalty.
“For me, it was very hard in the last loop,” Krčmář said at the post-race press conference. “I [had no] power in last loop and my teammate on the track said to me, ‘You are five seconds behind Arnd’. I do maximum [went as hard I could], but Arnd [was really] better today.”
He made up 2.4 seconds on that final loop, but could not catch up to Peiffer’s time. It was the first sprint podium for the 27-year-old Krčmář at the World Cup or championships level, and at these Olympics it came just at the right moment.
“It’s true, for me a big, big medal. First in career,” Krčmář said. “It’s for me [a] very surprising day because I [felt bad] in the training here. My shooting in training [was] not so good. And now, zero-zero. I am lucky man today because I [had] very good condition in standing shooting and on the track.”
Windisch missed one target in his standing bout, and came back on the course 12.2 seconds behind Peiffer’s time and 5.4 seconds behind Krčmář. He narrowed that gap on the final loop, but it wasn’t enough to catch either one.
“The wind was not easy because it continued to change … but maybe it was the best for me because I had something to think about and to be concentrated on my work,” Windisch said at the press conference. “I didn’t think about results, and maybe that was my secret today.”
For Windisch, 28, it was the second Olympic medal of his career after he held Italy to bronze in the mixed relay in Sochi four years ago.
“The relay is always a tough race because you are racing also for your friends or for three other persons. Maybe it’s more pressure there,” Windisch said when asked to compare the two achievements. “But to win an individual medal [means] a little more because it’s really hard to reach it, because there are so many different good athletes. I think the emotions are really big. But also [for the] relay the emotions are maybe bigger because the whole team celebrates the medal.”
Down On Their Luck
Having started in bib 5, Austria’s Julian Eberhard led the race early on until Peiffer beat his time, and in the end he just missed a medal by 0.7 seconds when Windisch bumped him off the podium to fourth place (+8.4, with one penalty).
During the race, Eberhard, who has three World Cup victories to his name, broke a pole on the loop after prone shooting and had to ski about 300 meters before receiving a spare. But he couldn’t explain why he lost time on the final downhill before the finish.
“I definitely started today with the goal to get the victory. I did my job, and it was very close. Only eight seconds are missing, so of course this is very bitter now,” Eberhard told Austrian broadcaster ORF, according to a translation. “Especially considering that before the downhill 500 meters before the finish I was clearly in second place … Those are the little details that have to work out for a gold medal.”
Norway’s Erlend Bjøntegaard led the race after the prone stage with his time and in the end finished fifth (+17.4), also just missing the podium after he missed two targets in his standing stage (0+2). He had been selected as the final athlete on the Norwegian men’s Olympic roster, effectively replacing biathlon legend Ole Einar Bjørndalen, a decision debated controversially in his home country. But on Sunday, Bjøntegaard, 27, justified his start.
“It feels incredibly strange when you put it that way,” Bjøntegaard told Norwegian broadcaster NRK when told he might have been one miss away from the podium, according to a translation. “It slowly dawns on me that I was so close to an Olympic medal and the gold. There is a lot of buzzing in my head. I’m happy, but also a little disappointed and mad at myself. It’s strange to look at the results list. Very strange. I’m struggling to take it in, but it’s slowly coming to me that I was so close.”
A number of athletes could have echoed same feeling, including three of Peiffer’s teammates.
Benedikt Doll, the defending sprint world champion, placed sixth (+17.6) after missing his final shot. Mass-start world champion Simon Schempp came almost as close in seventh (+21.4, with one penalty), and Erik Lesser, whose past rifle troubles had served as a positive example for Peiffer, was not far behind in 11th place (+31.9, also missing his final shot), despite starting the race with a bruised ribcage.
“I am rooming with Arnd and lost our team-internal duel. So that totally annoys me,” Lesser jokingly told ARD.
“I think that is the hallmark of our men’s team. Today I was the lucky one who got through. From my point of view, it could have been any one of the other three as well. I am not just saying that, I truly believe that,” Peiffer told ARD.
“I will definitely drink a small beer with my coaches, wax techs and teammates, I won’t let myself be denied of that,” he added with a laugh, although it was already past midnight local time. “And then I’ll be looking forward to [the pursuit], because now the pressure is gone. We have a great starting position, the others also did a great race even if that won’t be at the center of attention now. We can be really proud of that.”
As for the presumed “Big Two” race favorites who have dominated the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup this season, with France’s Fourcade standing on the podium in every individual race he started and Norway’s Johannes Bø having won eight races including three sprints, on Sunday they looked like mere mortals for once.
While Peiffer was approaching the finishing stretch, Fourcade, who had started in a later group in bib 54, missed three prone shots. He came out of the penalty lap with a split time that ranked 56th overall. That setback would have taken just about any other athlete completely out of contention, but with a clean standing shooting and the fastest overall course time of the day, Fourcade limited the damage and rose to eighth at the finish (+22.1).
Bø, currently ranked second behind Fourcade in the World Cup Total Score, also missed three shots in prone and another one in standing (3+1), crossing the line 1:12.7 back in 31st.
Their uncharacteristic days left openings and opportunities for the three podium finishers.
“I think on these conditions, it’s possible for everything and nothing, so today it was our lucky day and maybe not the day for Bø and Fourcade,” Windisch said at the press conference. “It was really difficult to shoot, and I think they will have many other chances at these Olympic Winter Games and they will be here [at the press conference] the next time.”
“I don’t know how this could happen,” Peiffer said at the press conference, still a bit incredulous about the outcome. “The other two [Fourcade and J.T. Bø] were dominating the season in ski times and on the range, so I didn’t expect that anyone would be in front of them, for sure not me.”
Four North Americans Qualify for Pursuit
The best North American in the difficult conditions was US Biathlon’s 2017 individual-discipline world champion Lowell Bailey, who began his race by cleaning all his prone targets, leaving the range with a split time that ranked him in eighth overall.
Then Bailey was shown on the international broadcast as one of the last remaining podium contenders still out on the course when he came into the range again for his standing shooting, in which he missed the fourth shot and thus had to ski through the 150-meter penalty lap.
That set him back to 24th place, and after losing about 30 more seconds on the final loop he crossed the line 1:15.6 out of first in 33rd.
“I had a good performance on the range, I was happy with the shooting but, unfortunately, I just didn’t have it in the legs,” Bailey said, according to a US Biathlon press release. “I just haven’t had the ski shape that I had last year. I haven’t gotten the speed going this year and that’s the way biathlon is. It wasn’t a bad race. I had a really good first lap, I just didn’t have it on the second and third laps. With any luck I’ll feel better and better as the Games go on.”
His teammate Tim Burke finished 47th (+1:47.5) with four penalties (2+2).
“Physically I felt descent. It wasn’t a bad start,” Burke told FasterSkier after the race. “Shooting was tough. I had four penalties. It was real tricky today; it’s a bit of a lottery and that’s the way it goes. … I thought I had similar wind [to zeroing] when I was shooting prone, but what makes it really tough here is it switches literally from one shot to the next. I am really curious to talk to the coaches and see where I was at because I felt totally fine and normally I don’t miss all these shots.”
“It’s a tough course because you have longer climbs,” he said of the course at the Alpensia Biathlon Center, after skiing the 28th-ranked time of the day. “A lot of biathlon courses today, the climbs are only 30 seconds long before you get a break and here you have a couple climbs that are significantly longer than that, so that suits me well.”
Leif Nordgren will join them in Monday’s pursuit after finishing 58th (+2:10.2) with a missed shot in each of his shooting stages (1+1).
“I’m satisfied that I made the pursuit and there’s another [race] day tomorrow, but yeah, the shooting was quite tough today and the wind,” Nordgren said after. “I made two mistakes and that was too much to have a great race today.”
Asked about the challenging conditions, he added:
“The wind was obviously number one, but actually the cold is another thing. If your hands ever get cold, it impacts the shooting tremendously. If you pause just for a second to even think about how cold your hands are that can throw off the shooting right away. So little things like that. It doesn’t take much to really lose that focus.”
The fourth American starter Sean Doherty missed four of his five prone targets, having to shoot about in the middle of the lane positions on the wind-exposed range. The penalties set him back almost 2 minutes, and even a clean standing shooting was not enough to overcome that deficit. He ultimately finished 65th (+2:16.4, 4+0), only about 2.5 seconds out of the top 60 needed to qualify for the pursuit.
“The wind today is very highly variable and I really thought I had a handle on it in zero [target practice],” Doherty said after. “I had a good zero, I had a good shooting warm up. I had pretty good confidence in what I am doing with things. I came in and I thought I had it under control and obviously something is off. … When I came in I did not assess the wind to be that severe, I guess I didn’t give it enough credit. … But everything else went well. The skiing feels strong. Standing shooting was fine.”
Doherty skied the 48th-ranked course time for the day.
“The course is skiing well,” he said. “It’s very fast and firm and this is a good hard course. … I am happy with the skiing, I felt fairly energetic and I am pretty encouraged with that, but it’s just the range. You leave a lot out there when you miss four.”
The Canadians also struggled with the windy conditions and demanding course.
Nathan Smith was able to cope best, shooting clean in prone before having to ski one penalty lap in his standing bout (0+1) to finish 44th (+1:43.5).
“I was happy with my shooting,” Smith said of his race. “Nine out of ten so that’s good for the windy conditions. … My shooting has been really good this year. Whenever I race I’m probably like 90 percent average or something. I usually shoot pretty quick and this year I haven’t been afraid to slow down when I need to be to hit those targets.”
On the course Smith only skied the 77th-ranked time of 87 starters, after he missed every World Cup race since the sprint in Annecy, France, before Christmas.
“Skiing was hard,” Smith said. “I haven’t raced for two months so it’s hard to jump into the top level of racing when you have just kind of been racing by yourself for a bit after getting sick … When you’re not feeling tip top, I think the biggest difference is when you’re going over hills and stuff, you’re tired and you’re just like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m getting to a downhill,’ and you can’t really push hard through all those transitions.”
Unfortunately he was Biathlon Canada’s only team member to qualify for the pursuit, while others missed the top 60 by mere fractions of a second.
Scott Gow missed four shots in his prone stage before cleaning all targets in standing (4+0), finishing 2:14.0 back in 61st place. That was just 0.1 seconds behind Romania’s Cornel Puchianu, who had incurred just one penalty, and finished 60th.
Gow told FasterSkier he took special care to bundle up before the race to keep warm fingers and a feeling for the trigger, but when he reached the prone stage, the wind had changed directions from the zeroing target practice, posing yet another problem.
“I had a fairly consistent wind from the left I would say, then when I came in to shoot in the race, it had switched directions,” Gow said. “So I thought I had accounted for it and I could hear that I was actually, we call it splitting, but hitting like half the target there and I didn’t want to chance making an overcorrection. So it was disappointing. I think luck-of-draw type of thing. It was too bad.”
The four penalty laps set him back two minutes and all the way to 84th place at the split time, and despite hitting all his targets in the following standing stage, Gow couldn’t quite make up that deficit.
On the course he skied the 46th-ranked time of the day overall and the 29th-ranked final loop.
“It’s a really hard course,” Gow said. “It’s basically three big hills with a couple downhills in-between. There’s no transitional areas, there’s no flatter spots. So it feels like you’re always grinding up a hill just to go back down and have to go up it again. … I felt like I could go a little harder on the first two-thirds of the course, and then just make sure I drop back a little bit on the last climb before you come back into the stadium just for the shooting sake. Then also with the wind, especially the headwind, to try and ski behind people if possible to get a good draft. … Overall I would say I did a fairly solid job with my race plan.”
His brother Christian Gow was just behind him in 62nd, 2:14.7 back with three penalties (2+1). Thus he also was less than a second out of the top 60.
“The conditions are tough today,” Christian said after. “It’s windy. It’s not nearly as bad as it was this afternoon, that was crazy. But regardless, it’s changing a lot, which I think is the hardest thing.”
“I corrected in prone and so I have to talk to the coaches and see if it was me or if I missed the correction, where those misses were,” he said of his shooting performance. “Then standing I think was a bit more my fault than anything. Shooting on lane 30 here, it’s quite sheltered. It blocks most of the wind, so it was pretty calm when I shot there and I still came away with a miss.”
Christian skied the 61st-ranked course time, acknowledging that he was impacted by the cold temperatures and wind.
“Today I felt a bit heavier than I would have liked to on the track,” he said of his skiing. “It’s a tough course for sure, really big climbs in it, and you’ve got to manage your energy so that you can do them time and again. … The wind, absolutely you get thrown around by it, but I kind of figure that everyone is getting some of that at some point.”
The fourth Canadian starter Brendan Green cleaned prone and was also shown on the international broadcast as a potential late contender when he came into the range for his standing shooting. But with strong wind he then missed three shots, ultimately finishing the race in 82nd place (+3:09.2, 0+3).
“It was a tough day,” Green said. “The conditions were obviously very challenging. But on a day like today that … opens up the door a bit, there’s a good opportunity, but I just was not able to put together a solid performance today. … Standing I just had a lot of gusts, just couldn’t quite overcome the wind for standing.”
“It’s a very challenging course,” he said of the conditions. “The cold weather and the wind. The snow is very dry and very slow, kind of like a sandpaper feel to it. But hopefully the weather starts to cooperate and things start to warm up a bit and the wind drops.”
The biathlon competitions in PyeongChang continue Monday with pursuits for the women at 7:10 p.m. local time (5:10 a.m. EST) and men at 9 p.m (7 a.m. EST). The times back to the winner from the sprint carry over into the pursuit race.
Both races can be streamed in the U.S. at Stream.nbcolympics.com.
— Jason Albert and Gabby Naranja contributed