Boe vs Fourcade: a Rivalry renewed
Martin Fourcade has proved seven seasons in a row that greatness is not about sporadic highs that are the exception, but rather the long hauls, sequences of events that seem mini-mal at each juncture, but compound into major gains. He showed that greatness is not about overnight success or flashes of excellence, but about periods of repeatable habits.
When Martin Fourcade of France lifted the globe for the IBU World Cup Total Score winner at the end of the 2011/2012 season, he felt happy, but mentally and physically spent. There was no way he was willing to put this much effort into anything, he told himself after his career-first Total Score title; who would have blamed him if he had stayed aligned with that inner conversation, for biathlon is one of the most punishing sports to the body and the mind of an athlete. Repeatedly undergoing the preseason of gruelling workouts and then staying composed - and healthy - for four months in a row, hitting the road every week, demands an iron will and a body that cooperates. At the beginning of last season, when Fourcade opened with a win in the Individual in Pokljuka, he said he wasn’t deceived with the first place result - and others shouldn’t be either - and that he felt rather heavy on his skis. Everybody listened, but nobody seemed to believe the champion at first. Fourcade soon started to show more and more cracks in form during the season and even decided to skip the finals in Oslo-Holmenkollen. Something wasn’t right, but it was difficult to say what. The change in Fourcade’s demeanour was nevertheless remarkable.
In the spring and summer of 2012, Fourcade kept thinking about his achievement and discovered that as painful as winning his first IBU World Cup Total Score title was, he wanted to win more to live up to his own standards. He decided to push those same standards even higher. He improved his shooting in the 2012/2013 season to 89% accuracy from 84% in the season before. He skied 4.3% above the average speed of the field. Fourcade then maintained an extraordinarily high level of performance for the next five seasons, winning seven IBU World Cup Total Score titles in a row, a phenomenal achievement that included other monumental highlights within those same seasons, for Fourcade regularly won titles at the Olympic Winter Games and IBU World Championships as well. It was clear that it would take incredible talent and hard work to reach Fourcade’s level. Then JT Boe had the craziest BMW IBU World Cup season ever and transformed himself from the pursuer into the one pursued.
Fourcade won his first Total Score title when he was younger than JT Boe
Fourcade won his career-first IBU World Cup Total Score title in the 2011/2012 season, his fifth season at the World Cup level. He was 23 years old, turning 24 later that year. JT Boe won his career-first IBU World Cup Total Score title in the 2018/2019 season, his seventh season at the highest level of biathlon competitions. He was 25 years old, turning 26 in the same year.
Last season, JT Boe dominated the field like nobody had ever done before: he won 16 competitions, winning a staggering 50.48 points per competition (or an even more incredible 54.86 points per competition if we consider only the 23 results that counted toward the Total Score). He had almost no lapses in form, but he showed nerves at the IBU World Championships in Oestersund, winning ‘just’ in sprint. JT Boe vastly improved his prone shooting last season, raising his accuracy from 85% the season before to a fantastic 93%. A cause for slight concern was the drop in his standing shooting accuracy, which fell from 86% the season before to 78% last season. Most importantly though, JT Boe elevated his skiing dominance to unprecedented levels last season, skiing 6% above the average speed of the field. But it was not only his speed and incredible body power mixed with an extraordinary atten-tion to detail on the course - for JT sees patches of bad snow far ahead and makes sure to avoid them so as not to lose speed - that kept others well behind him. His skiing power also imposed his authority over the rest of the field psychologically, for his competitors knew that one or two missed shots automatically ruled them out of contention for the win, since penal-ty loops or added time distanced them further from JT. They simply didn’t have the speed or the stamina to even begin challenging JT Boe if their own race wasn’t perfect and his less so.
Ultimately, there are two main questions seeking an answer before the start of the new season:
1. Will Martin Fourcade manage to reinvent himself (and dethrone JT Boe) and adjust his performance technique to his more mature body, a feat that Roger Federer successfully achieved in tennis and Cristiano Ronaldo in soccer?
2. Or will JT Boe manage to maintain his standards at last season’s level or push them higher, resist Fourcade’s attacks and add a second Total Score title to his name?
Anything else would be a sensation and a story of epic proportions.