Pyeongchang 2018: Expectations, Success, Surprises and Heartbreak
Going into the Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, much of the focus was on the potential Martin Fourcade/Johannes Thingnes Boe showdowns, Anastasiya Kuzmina’s triple sprint Gold quest and Laura Dahlmeier leading the German women to glory. Everyone in this elite group grabbed some headlines during the two weeks of competitions, but not every story line went as planned. Like every Olympic Winter Games, this one was filled with Golden Success, Silver (and Bronze) Surprises and just as much heartbreak.
Medals and Marie’s Song
Medals around the neck are the public perception of the Olympic Winter Games; that is all that is remembered. Marie Dorin Habert finished fourth in the women’s sprint, her best result of the season; few noticed. Yet, Marie singing “La Marseillaise” on the podium after winning the Mixed Relay Gold medal will be etched in many minds for years. Looking at the medals table, the numbers do not lie. Germany with three Golds, one Silver and three Bronze medals is on top; France with three Golds and two Silvers is the runner-up and Sweden with two Golds and two Silver medals is third, ahead of Norway with a Gold, three Silvers and two Bronze medals.
By the Numbers
Yet, the numbers are only part of the story. The most powerful teams won the majority of the medals. The athletes at the top of the World Cup Total Score were expectedly successful: eight of the top women have a medal or two in their travel bags. Kaisa Mäkäräinen in the Yellow Bib was the big exception, with a best of 10th in the mass start. The men did even better: ten of the top 13 (Shipulin did not compete) all won medals. Still, Sweden, currently seventh in both the men’s and women’s Nations Cup score topped Norway, the men’s Nations Cup leader. The German women lead the Nations Cup, but their only medals came from Laura Dahlmeier, while the men behind Norway and France, won four medals.
Golden Successes: Martin
Martin Fourcade, Laura Dahlmeier, Johannes Thingnes Boe Anastasiya Kuzmina, Darya Domracheva, and the Swedish men all won Golds; no surprises…well a couple…except that Fourcade was 0-for-2 in the sprint and 20K, had a very untypical bad day in the men’s relay, but won the pursuit and mass start. The Yellow Bib was never overwhelming as sometimes in the BMW IBU World Cup, with just a 12-second win over Sebastian Samuelsson in the pursuit and a photo-finish in the mass start over Simon Schempp. Still, he proved to be the best of the men, adding a strong performance for Gold in the mixed relay. The Olympic stress and fatigue gets to everyone, even the mostly stoic Martin Fourcade. Regardless, he walks away as the most-medaled French athlete in both the Olympic Winter Games and Olympic Summer Games. Enough said…
Laura’s Golden Double
Dahlmeier became the first woman to win Gold medals in the sprint/pursuit double. She pretty much overwhelmed the field in both, looking confident, and shooting well. In the 15K individual, a single penalty was too much to top the clean-shooting Hanna Oeberg and the flying skis of Kuzmina. Still, a solid performance and nothing to be ashamed of, winning two individual Olympic titles and a third medal in the same Games is always an impressive feat. However, even Dahlmeier having good performances in both relays could not carry the teams to medals alone; the other teammates had to be on top also. Bottom line, although some expected another Hochfilzen sweep, the OWG are completely different…and this 24-year-old did very well!
Johannes, Superb on the Tracks
Johannes versus Martin never materialized. Both probably expended too much energy battling before the Games and although still the cream of the crop were both just a tick off their best at one point or another. That aside, Johannes was amazing in his 20K Gold medal competition. Two penalties and he was still ahead of Jakov Fak and Dominik Landertinger, neither of whom are exactly turtles on the tracks. Johannes suffered like many did with the windy shooting conditions, but his skiing remained superb. Two relay Silver medals plus his Gold is like Dahlmeier pretty impressive for a 24-year-old!
Kuzmina: Three OWG, Three Gold Medals
Kuzmina at age 33 won her third Gold medal in three consecutive OWG. However it was not in the sprint, but the mass start. This lady was prepared for the Games, but struggled mightily on the shooting range until the mass start, when every target went down until the last one. Even with shaky shooting, she still skied her way to two Silver medals in the pursuit and 15K individual. The 15K medal was her first-ever in the classic biathlon event. Her smile after the mass start was enough to light up the night sky.
Domracheva, Historic Relay Gold
Domracheva had the mental edge after the Antholz mass start win, but it faded away in the windy Alpensia Biathlon Stadium, where she went 0-for-3 in the sprint, pursuit and 15K individual. Then as the winds died, she went 19-for-20 in the mass start and was back on track with a Silver medal. Yet the best was yet to come when this woman who did not set foot in a biathlon stadium from March 22, 2015 to January 6, 2017 was handed the lead in women’s relay. Three spares and the fastest leg brought Belarus its first-ever Olympic Relay Gold medal. Make that four career Gold medals for Domracheva and medals in three consecutive OWG.
Swedish Surprise Number 2
The Swedish men won the oh-so-foggy Oberhof relay but that was it for the season. Then, the “team with the best spirit” according to Coach Wolfgang Pichler stunned the biathlon pundits on another very windy evening with Sweden’s, like Belarus’ first-ever Olympic Relay Gold medal. The only team sans a penalty used just seven spares, when the whole filed had a bloated 203 total. The veteran Fredrik Lindström shot calmly in the standing stage, leaving Emil Hegle Svendsen on the penalty loop, grabbed his mini Swedish flag near the finish, and claimed the biggest biathlon upset/surprise of the Games.
Swedish Surprise Number 1
Adding to the Swedish success was the 22-year-old Hanna Oeberg, who slayed all of the big names in the women’s 15K individual with 20 closed targets and a solid sixth fastest course time. Last year’s IBU Rookie of the Year surprised even herself. “I am most impressed by my performance today, since shooting clean is never easy…I knew that this performance today could have taken me to a medal, but to win is unbelievable!”
Arnd the Sprinter
Not forgetting Arnd Peiffer, the quiet German veteran with nine career wins, seven of which are in sprints, was the best sprinter on a cold, breezy evening giving Germany both sprint Gold medals this year. Peiffer shot clean and skied fast enough while the heralded Fourcade and Johannes struggled with three and four penalties, respectively. Peiffer summed up his Gold medal win, “I don’t know how this could happen. The other two 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.” Kudos to Arnd Peiffer!
Mixed Relay “Perfect Storm”
France’s Mixed Relay Gold was the “perfect storm.” Fourcade takes over in third, 50 seconds behind Germany, Peiffer stumbles with spare rounds and a penalty, while the French star rapidly fires through a perfect 10-for-10. The French star dominates on the tracks and comes home with another Gold medal. Fourcade remains a tough man to beat mentally or physically when he is at the top of his game.
Silver, Bronze and…Emil
Beyond the Gold medals, everyone and every team that won a medal was a winner. No Olympic medal is ever an easy win, just look to most of the above. Yet, before the Games ever started, not many people would have expected individual Silver medals to go to Marte Olsbu, Michal Krcmar, Sebastian Samuelsson or the Swedish women’s relay. At the same time, Dominik Windisch, Veronika Vitkova and the returning-from-surgery Dominik Landertinger all won Bronze medals. Jakov Fak returned to the site of his first medal, Bronze in the 2009 IBU WCH to claim his second Olympic medal, 20K individual Silver. Then there was Svendsen, Bronze in the mass start and Silvers in the mixed and men’s relays. The veteran Norwegian is now the third most medaled biathlete in Olympic history. Even the sometimes rather sarcastic Svendsen was moved and impressed. “It feels very good to know I am third in all time medalist… what else can I say? Thank you!”
Mother Nature and Heartbreaks
The heartbreaks probably could fill many pages, but a few stand out and most were fuelled by bad breaks and Mother Nature. The first week and the last relays were dogged by WIND that brutalized everyone, taking no prisoners. Athletes clicked the wrong way or too much in prone and struggled for eternity in standing, while their rifle barrels flopped around like the cloth wind flags.
Schempp/Fourcade and the Relays
Heartbreak number 1 was the Fourcade/Schempp photo-finish; someone had to lose. Still it was great battle among friends and a tough loss for Schempp. Yet there is no reason to cry about an Olympic Silver medal. The second big heartbreak was Germany in the mixed relay; there was no rules infraction and no formal protest filed according to the competition jury. Windisch, the sprint Bronze medalist nipped the sprint Gold medalist Peiffer, who was crushed by the loss. The Italians won their second Mixed relay Bronze. Lukas Hofer, a man with 254 World Cup starts commented, “I have never been so nervous in a race ever!” Number three is a tie between the German women’s relay, the French men’s relay and the Polish women’s relay. Everything that could go wrong went wrong for the seemingly unstoppable and steady German women who finished 8th with three penalties and eleven spares despite Dahlmeier’s anchor leg heroics. The French men got caught up in the penalty loop early and continued to fall farther and farther back. With most of their rivals also struggling, Fourcade salvaged a surely disappointing 5th place. Poland has never won an Olympic biathlon medal; they led the women’s relay going at the final exchange. Then the targets would not close for anchor Weronika Nowakowska and she lost a finish line battle with Switzerland’s Irene Cadurisch for sixth place. Still the best-ever for Poland but a huge heartbreak for the team.
It’s Biathlon, Anything Can Happen
The 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games are over. It was as expected the best of biathlon: golden career-best moments, stunning surprises, tearful moments, and as always...it’s biathlon, anything can happen.