Schedule of Events
Four years ago, the Frenchman that ignited the biathlon world at the Vancouver Olympics was lightly-regarded Vincent Jay. Now retired from the sport at age 28, the talk will turn to the man many suspected would be a top contender at the biathlon course in Whistler. Martin Fourcade, a year older than Jay was when he took a star-crossed turn in Canada, has been dominating the IBU World Cup standings for the past three seasons and will look to add gold to the silver medal he won in 2010 as a 21-year-old neophyte to Olympic competition.Fourcade will be pushed by Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen, who emerged from the 2013 World Championships in Nové Město with four gold medals. The Norwegians will be favored in both the men’s and the mixed relay as usual thanks to the depth of the team, but Svendsen is the inarguable leader of the group. Taking advantage of Fourcade’s absence this past weekend at the World Cup races in Ruhpolding, Svendsen won the 20km individual race despite a shooting error and dominated the pursuit for his third and fourth race wins of the young season.
For American fans, Tim Burke provides the best hope of seeing a compatriot win a biathlon medal on Russian soil. New York native Burke, who will have just turned 32 at the start of the Olympics, has started strong this winter after taking silver in the world championship individual race at Nové Město last year. He reached the podium in the individual race at Östersund in November, and ostensibly could spring a surprise given perfect conditions. His best chance will be at the 20km distance, where his skiing strength can help succumb his tendency toward shooting errors.
Realistically, though, this will more often than not come down to a duel between Fourcade and Svendsen. Of course, we said much the same thing about four years ago, and we were gifted the out-of-nowhere story of Vincent Jay. With the latitudes of Sochi threatening to provide uneven conditions in the same way that snow quality was a factor at Whistler, the chances of a Cinderella stealing at least one gold are entirely possible.
Men's Biathlon Medal Favorites
Magdalena Neuner is the epitome of just how short an athlete’s career can be, and how especially for an Olympic athlete that can mean only one true shot at glory in one’s sport. Neuner didn’t even get injured to lose her shot at repeating the feats of Vancouver; at only 26 years old, she could easily contend once again in Sochi. But flagging motivation can kill one’s career as quickly as a blown ligament, and thus the dominant figure in women’s biathlon from four years ago has now been gone from the sport for the past two seasons.
Having won everything possible by the time she had turned 24 years old, Neuner walked away from her skis and her rifle after a season where she won her third World Cup overall title and the 11th and 12th world championship gold medals at the 2012 IBU World Championships in her native Germany. Her career would conclude with a grand total of 12 world championship gold medals, 17 total world championship medals, and the two gold and one silver that she won in her only Olympiad at Whistler.
Thus the torch turns to a Norwegian who at age 32 has saved the best for last. For Tora Berger, who won a gold medal in the 15km individual race in Vancouver four years ago, the medal sparked a late-career renaissance that has vaulted her to the top of the World Cup standings. After the 2010 Games, she would win her first world championship gold the following season as part of Norway’s winning relay team.
And then everything exploded for Berger. With Neuner losing interest, the void had opened for another woman to take over the alpha role the German had held over the sport. Berger would finish third in the World Cup overall standings in Neuner’s final season in 2012, and would win her first individual world championships in the 12.5km mass start and the 15km individual race. With Neuner out of the picture in 2013, the Norwegian took over women’s biathlon.Berger claimed her first World Cup overall title in 2013, in the 16th winter of her career, in a dominant fashion that hadn’t been seen among the women since Magdalena Forsberg’s retirement in 2002. Along the way she also won the individual titles in all four World Cup disciplines. And at the world championships last February, she became the first woman to ever defend her 15km individual race crown… in addition to winning gold in the pursuit, two more golds in both the women’s and mixed relays, and a pair of silvers in the mass start and the sprint. In the process she became the first biathlete, male or female, ever to win six medals at a single IBU World Championship.
And while 2014 started slowly, Berger has been pacing herself well this season. Two weeks ago in Oberhof, Germany she won the only mass start on the calendar prior to Sochi; this past weekend in Ruhpolding, she took silver in the pursuit. With one more World Cup stop in Antholz-Anterselva, Italy prior to the Olympics, Berger has even more time to round into form.
Of course, there is the potential that she can be beaten. Last season, Darya Domracheva of Belarus and Germany’s Andrea Henkel were Berger’s closest competition.This year, Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic continues to extend a lead the World Cup standings, most recently with a pair of convincing wins in the individual race and the pursuit at Ruhpolding. But until we see otherwise, Berger has to be an overwhelming favorite to at least podium in every event. Having hinted at retirement after this season, she will want to complete the script of her career’s sunset years on top of the sport.