KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA – After doing everything right for nearly 15 kilometers, Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen almost threw away his first biathlon gold medal at the Sochi Olympics in the final inches.
What could have been a comfortable victory turned into a photo finish after the Norwegian started celebrating the win on the final stretch, seemingly unaware that French rival Martin Fourcade was catching up fast behind him.
As Svendsen cruised toward the finish line with his hands in the air, Fourcade made one last attempt to grasp victory with a sliding finish, pushing his left ski ahead to come within one-tenth of a second of stealing first place.
Svendsen admitted he may have started his celebrations too early.
“But I actually had pretty good control even though it looked very, very close,” Svendsen said after the 15-kilometer mass start race. “It looked closer than it was for me.”
Svendsen shot cleanly while Fourcade missed one target. Both finished in 42 minutes, 29.1 seconds.
Ondrej Moravec of Czech Republic was 13.8 behind to take bronze for his second medal of the games after winning silver in the 12.5K pursuit.
It was Svendsen’s fourth Olympic medal overall after winning gold in the 20K individual race and the men’s relay and bronze at the 10K sprint in Vancouver four years ago.
Svendsen bounced back from his disappointing opening week of the Olympics. The Norwegian, runnerup to Fourcade in the overall World Cup standings, had not been a threat to the medalists in any of his three events.
“I’ve been shooting good and feeling good, but the skis were going very, very bad. But today they were perfect, and I’m glad we’re back where we’re supposed to be,” Svendsen said.
He won the overall World Cup title in 2010 and has finished second each season since, the last two times behind Fourcade.
The Frenchman was seeking his third straight gold after winning the pursuit and the individual race last week. The Frenchman also lost to Svendsen in a photo finish of the pursuit at last year’s world championships.
“We have a great rivalry,” Fourcade said. “I am happy for him. I had imagined before the race I could win gold. I am both happy and disappointed but he deserved this medal. He has brought a lot to biathlon in the last years.”
Moravec left the shooting range for the final time just behind Svendsen and Fourcade but didn’t give himself a chance of beating them.
“They were much stronger than me,” Moravec said. “On that last uphill I said, OK, I take third place, and then only hold my position and control my position.”
Svendsen’s victory earned Norway its second biathlon gold of the games after Ole Einar Bjoerndalen won the opening sprint event.
On Tuesday, Bjoerndalen missed two targets in the first round but rallied to fourth position after the fourth loop. He was still in contention for a podium finish before missing four times in his final shooting. He came 22nd, 2:29.2 off the lead.
“I don’t know what happened in the last shooting,” said Bjoerndalen, who gets another chance for a record 13th Winter Olympics medal in Wednesday’s mixed relay. “I’m in good shape, but today was not my day.”
The start of the race was delayed for 15 minutes due to fog. It had been called off on Sunday and again on Monday because of thick fog, making it the first Olympic biathlon event to be postponed for two days.
The 10K sprint at Nagano in 1998 and the 20K individual race at Sapporo in 1972 were also moved from their initial schedule because of the weather but went ahead the next day.
Drizzle turning into snowfall also made for difficult conditions on a track already weakened after days of mild weather.