The Men’s and Women’s Mass Starts delivered all the excitement and unpredictability expected of these competitions, which have quickly become the must-see showpieces of biathlon events. Darya Domracheva and Emil Hegle Svendsen will take the headlines as the winners, but that is just part of what were some of the most eventful competitions in recent memory.
After several delays due to foggy conditions which rolled into the Laura Biathlon Centre, the Men’s Mass Start was finally pushed back to after the Women’s competition. Domracheva, who must now be favoured to be named Woman of the Games, took command on the second lap and steadily built a lead over Gabriela Soukalova, who was doing her best to keep up in second. Despite a miss by both Domracheva and Soukalova in the final standing shooting, the two of them were in a skiing class of their own, and the rest of the field was left to challenge for the bronze. Domracheva cruised to her third medal of these Games, setting a new record for gold medals in a single games by a female biathlete. Soukalova’s silver was her first career olympic medal. The surprise bronze medal winner was Tirill Eckhoff, who held off Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle in a sprint finish.
Susan Dunklee recorded the best-ever result by an American with a 12th place finish. Megan Irmie, who was the fourth reserve, got the call that she would be starting just hours before the race, and was 28th.
The Men’s competition was advertised as a showdown between Martin Fourcade and Emil Hegle Svendsen, and it lived up to its billing. Svendsen had been struggling to have that little extra push that gets you on the podium, but he had it today. After one miss in the first shooting, Fourcade slowly worked his way back and caught up with Svendsen and the leaders for the final two laps. In the end it came down to Svendsen, Fourcade and Ondrej Moravec battling it out on the final lap. Moravec could not hang on and it came down to a sprint finish between Fourcade and Svendsen. After a powerful move by Svendsen in the stadium, it looked like he had beaten Fourcade cleanly; but an early celebration almost cost him dearly. As Svendsen put his arms up in celebration before crossing the finish line, Fourcade lunged from behind; it went to a photo finish and Svendsen averted an epic blunder by a one-inch margin.
The competition featured 5 North Americans, and two Canadians figured in the top ten. Brendan Green was ninth, and JP Le Guellec was 10th. Tim Burke was 21st, Lowell Bailey was 23rd, and Nathan Smith did not finish.
While these competitions delivered great entertainment and excitement, I have one major complaint with these Olympics: the design and conditions of the tracks in Sochi must be considered nothing less than scandalous. The downhill corner is dangerous in the best of conditions for a single athlete to negotiate. Combine sloppy and awful snow conditions with packs of skiers being on the course at the same time, and you have a recipe for disaster. As predicted, several of the world’s top skiers crashed on this corner and had their medal hopes dashed. Tora Berger, Olga Zaitseva, Nathan Smith, Evgeny Ustyugov and Simon Fourcade all were casualties. When I watch a biathlon competition, I want to see the best in the world be able to perform, not to see them put through an obstacle course that is more suited for skier or border cross. Once these Olympics are over I trust the IBU will take a serious look at why they approved the tracks at Sochi, and will ensure that in the future we won’t see courses where crashes, broken equipment and DNFs are the norm.
But before that happens we still have three more relay competitions to go, beginning with the Mixed Relay tomorrow. A total of 16 teams are entered (start list), although several nations are saving their strongest athletes for the Men’s and Women’s relay. Will this be the event that Ole Einar Bjoerdalen breaks the record to become the most decorated winter Olympian of all time? Will Martin Fourcade make it four medals in one Olympics? Will the Russians finally give the home fans the gold medal they so desperately want?
Find out tomorrow at 9:30 Eastern, 6:30 Pacific!