Anyone can miss: Few clean targets at Olympic biathlon
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Biathlon is arguably one of the toughest competitive shooting sports in the world. True, there's quite a bit of cross-country skiing, an alpine discipline that lacks the obvious thrills of events such as the Slalom and the Downhill and may even seem akin to watching white paint dry during a snowstorm at the North Pole to many traditional shooting enthusiasts.
But make no mistake, biathletes like France's Martin Fourcade, who's racked up 11 biathlon world championships and just got his third Olympic gold medal in Monday's 12.5km Pursuit, are among the top endurance athletes in the world, routinely pushing their heart rates above 200 beats per minute while skiing distances ranging from 7.5km to 20km. Good genetics, dedicated training and great coaching are essential for success.
Yet, ultimately, the winners and losers are determined at the firing range. Competitors must demonstrate their shooting prowess from both the prone and standing positions.
The targets are five in number and 50 meters in distance. From the prone position, they're the size of a silver half-dollar, from standing, a small paper plate. Depending on the length of the event, biathletes visit the range two to four times and must knock down or "clear" 10 to 20 targets, no easy task when your heart's threatening to leap out of your chest.
And there's one thing that's clear from the early biathlon events at the Winter Olympics: shooting matters. For each shot missed on the range, competitors must ski one lap around a 150-meter penalty circuit, adding precious seconds to their overall time.
The tension is high, and fans of competitive shooting will not want to miss NBC Sports' stepped-up biathlon coverage from PyeongChang, South Korea, which continues this week with the Women's 15km Individual event on Wednesday evening and the Men's 20km Individual on Thursday night.
In biathlon, anyone can get the yips. Even top contenders like Fourcade, the heavy favorite coming into PyeongChang to medal in the Sprint, Pursuit, Individual and Mass Start events, can have a bad day at the range.
Indeed, on a windy, 20-degree night, Fourcade looked confident in the first men's event, the 10km Sprint, on Sunday. After circulating his first lap on the 2.5km cross-country course, he slid up to the range knowing his closest rival, Norway's Tarjei Boe, who started before him, had faltered miserably, missing two out of five targets from the prone position.
All Fourcade had to do was clear his customary five-out-of-five targets, and the gold medal momentum would be his. Lying on his stomach with skis splayed behind him, he relaxed, took aim and began firing his Anschutz .22 caliber target rifle with mechanical precision.
Incredibly, he missed two out of the five shots, an unusual happenstance that was not lost on NBC's TV commentators, who were flabbergasted the top two contenders had "fallen into fits on the range." Even though both Fourcade and Boe cleared their second set of targets from the standing position, their superior cross-country skiing skills were not enough to overcome the penalty time.
Germany's Arnd Peiffer cleared all of his targets, 10-out-of-10, earning the up-and-comer his first Olympic gold medal with a time of 23 minutes, 39 seconds. The Czech Republic's Micahl Krcmar also cleared all of his targets and took the silver, four seconds off Peiffer's time. Italian Dominic Windisch, who missed only one shot, took the bronze, another 8 seconds back.
Fourcade finished eighth overall, 22 seconds off the gold medal pace. Boe finished an unlucky 13th, 34 seconds back. If they hadn't missed those two shots and been forced to ski those penalty laps, they would have been on the podium.
Lowell Bailey, who last year became the first and still only American to ever win a gold medal in international biathlon competition, had a good evening at the range, clearing all five targets from the prone position and missing just once from the standing position. But the 34-year-old biathlete, who plans to retire from the sport after this Olympics, just didn't have enough gas on the skis. He finished 33rd out of 87 competitors, one minute, 16 seconds from the front.
"I had a good performance on the range," Bailey said, "but unfortunately I just didn't have it in the legs. I hoped for better."
The top 60 competitors in the Men's 10km Sprint returned to the course Monday night for the Men's 12.5km Pursuit. In the Sprint, competitors start at staggered 30-second intervals and compete against the clock; in the Pursuit, start times are staggered by the finishing time in the Sprint. Whoever crosses the finish line first in Pursuit is the winner.
Despite his poor shooting performance in the Sprint, Fourcade's starting position in the Pursuit — eighth, 22 seconds from the front — proved an easy obstacle for the multitime world champ to overcome. The Frenchman missed only once on four trips to the shooting range, going 19-for-20 and taking the gold medal by 12 seconds over Sweden's Sebastian Samuelsson, who also went 19-for-20 at the range, earning the silver. Germany's Benedikt Doll also missed just once at the range, finishing 15 seconds back and taking the bronze.
Demonstrating just how difficult shooing under extreme physical and mental duress can be, not one of the 60 competitors cleared all of his targets.
In an inspired performance, Team USA's Tim Burke, who started the Pursuit in 47th place, one minute and 47 seconds behind the leader, made up 30 positions on strong skiing and 18-for-20 shooting. He finished 17th, two minutes and 20 seconds off first place. Lowell Bailey improved his position by one place, starting 33rd and finishing 32nd after missing five of his 20 targets.
Team USA's female biathletes expected to do better in PyeongChang than previous Olympics, particularly Susan Dunklee, who like Bailey has been moving up the international biathlon ranks the past several seasons. But suffering from a common cold in the frigid weather, she had one of the worst shooting outings of her life during the Women's 7.5km Sprint on Saturday night, missing four targets out of five from the standing position and finishing a disappointing 66th out of 87 competitors.
"It was very frustrating and very disappointing," Dunklee said. "Skiing the first lap I think was solid. The prone was pretty good, one miss is decent. I'll take that. I don't know what happened in the standing, I missed four. It just was kind of surreal. I finished, and I looked up and there was only one target down — not much you can do at that point. Just ski the penalty loops."
Only one American woman finished in the top 60 in Sprint, Emily Dreissigacker, who finished 51st after clearing nine of her 10 targets. On Monday evening, she finished 47th in the Women's 10km Pursuit. Dreissigacker missed four out of her 20 targets in Pursuit and finished more than five minutes behind gold medal winner Laura Dahlmeier from Germany.
"The coach told me I had to fight for every second because there are some athletes behind me, and that I should run for my life," - Laura DAHLMEIER #GER on winning #Gold in the #biathlon women's sprint. pic.twitter.com/GYkiV93QTX— Olympics (@Olympics) February 10, 2018
Dunklee, who failed to qualify for the Pursuit, is hoping a good performance in Wednesday night's Women's 15km Individual will be enough to qualify her for the Women's 12.5km Mass Start on Saturday evening. Dunklee took the silver medal in Mass Start, in which the top 30 competitors start at the same time, at the world championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, last year, joining Bailey as the only Americans who've medaled in international biathlon.
"Theoretically I could (qualify)," Dunklee said, "but I'd have to have a really, really good individual race."
Likewise, Bailey is hoping to duplicate his gold medal-winning performance in the Men's 20km Individual in last year's world championships, where he cleared all his targets and skied the race of his life, when he returns to the course Thursday evening.
"This is my fourth Olympics," Bailey said. "I'm 36. I've put my heart and soul into this sport for a long time, and I've really put everything I have into this Olympics, so I hope for the best."
NBC Sports will be broadcasting the remaining individual biathlon events — the Individual and the Mass Start — live from PyeongChang through Sunday evening. The individual events are then followed by various relay events, including one of the few Olympic events in which men and women compete together on paired teams, which continue until Friday, Feb. 23, and closing ceremonies.
Biathlon is a shooting sport. OK, it's also a skiing sport. But the shooting matters, and for anyone who enjoys shooting, this is some intense competition. Due to the time differential between South Korea and the United States, most of the events are airing early in the morning U.S. time, but on most cable TV providers, NBC is providing replays of both the women and men's events to watch at your leisure.
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