Monday, February 20, 2006

GUEST POST -- Biathlon Blitzkrieg

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:12 AM |  

Mark Yost, Opinion Page Associate Editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and diehard biathlon fan (or is it just women with weapons) has reported on "only sport that really matters during the Winter Olympics" here and here.

It was another stellar day for the German biathlon team on Saturday. Men and women won medals, helping the Germans to the overall Medal Count lead on Sunday with 18. Norway was in second with 16 total Medals, and the U.S. was third, five behind Germany with 13 Medals overall.

In the women’s 10K Pursuit race, ubergirl Kati Wilhelm smoked the rest of the field and overcame a snowstorm to capture the Gold Medal. Fellow German Martina Glagow was second, followed by Russia’s Albina Akhatova.

To recap: The Pursuit is literally a chase race, with the start set by the results of the 7.5K Sprint race. Frenchwoman Florence Baverel-Robert took the Gold Medal in the Sprint, so she started the Pursuit race. Swede Anna Carin Olofsson finished second in the Sprint race, 2.4 seconds behind Baverel-Robert. So, 2.4 seconds after Baverel-Robert left the starting gate for the Pursuit race, Olofsson followed, and so on through the field.

Wilhelm, one of the stars of the German women’s biathlon team, started the Pursuit race seventh, 18.4 seconds behind Baverel-Robert. She made up nearly all that time during the first ski loop. After she shot clean and Baverel-Robert missed one target, Wilhelm was ahead by 45 seconds.

Lightning fast skiing and near-perfect marksmanship helped her keep that lead – for good. She finished 1 minute 13.6 seconds ahead of German teammate Glagow.

The women skied five loops, stopping four times to shoot; twice prone and twice standing. Wilhelm hit 19 of 20 targets and completed the 10K distance in 36 minutes, 43.6 seconds.

Wilhelm had a 33-second lead on Olga Nazarova of Belarus after her second clean shoot. After missing once on her first standing shoot, Wilhelm had to ski one 150-meter penalty loop, but still had a 68-second lead over France's Sandrine Bailly. No one threatened her lead after that.

It was Glagow’s second Silver Medal. She initially won the Bronze Medal in the 20K Individual race but moved up to Silver when Russia’s Olga Pyleva was stripped of her silver medal for allegedly taking an illegal stimulant. Pyleva was summarily thrown out of the Torino Games and was banned from competition for two years.

Glagow missed two targets; one each during the prone shooting. She finished the course in 37 minutes, 57.2 seconds.

Bronze Medalist Akhatova also benefited from Pyleva’s disqualification. She had finished fourth in the 20K Individual race, out of Medal contention. But like Glagow, Akhatova moved up to Bronze when Pyleva was tossed out.

In the Pursuit race, Akhatova missed just one target and finished eight seconds behind Glagow.

The other two German women biathletes didn’t do too bad, either. My girl, Uschi Disl, who at 35 has won more Olympic Medals than any other biathlete, finished in 10th. She missed four targets – three prone and one standing – and was two minutes, 47.2 seconds behind Wilhelm.

And German Katrin Apel finished 11th, eight seconds behind Disl. She missed three targets, one standing and two prone.

American Rachel Steer finished 39th.

This was all a prelude to the men’s 12.5K Pursuit race, which was arguably the greatest race so far in all of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games at Torino. But don’t take my word for it. A friend who is by no means a fan of biathlon said the men’s race was “perhaps the greatest sporting event I’ve ever seen.”

It all came down to a sprint between France’s Vincent Defrasne and Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, who was the favorite biathlete coming into these games but who has yet to win a Gold Medal.

Defrasne, who started the Pursuit race fifth, 45 seconds behind the leader, shot his first 15 targets clean. It was during the final standing shoot that he missed two targets, forcing him to ski two 150-meter penalty loops at the exit of the shooting range.

Bjoerndalen missed just one shot during the final standing shoot. That whittled away at Defrasne’s lead and allowed Bjoerndalen to catch him just after the 11K mark. Defrasne was on Bjoerndalen’s heels as the two struggled up the final one-kilometer hill. Adding to the drama, Defrasne stumbled as they came around the final turn and onto the front stretch for the sprint to the finish.

“He put it in another gear that Bjoerndalen clearly didn’t have,” said my friend, a member of the MSM whom I’m sure would be embarrassed to have his name appear in a blog. (After all, he has a reputation to maintain.)

Try as he might, Bjoerndalen couldn’t hold off Defrasne’s ferocious charge. The Frenchman nipped him at the line by 2.7 seconds to deny Bjoerndalen yet another Gold Medal and send the thousands of spectator’s who witnessed the spectacular victory into a frenzy. Defrasne finished the 12.5K course in 35 minutes, 20.2 seconds.

Taking the Bronze Medal was Germany’s Sven Fischer, who won the 10K Sprint race and thus was the leader at the start of the 12.5K Pursuit. He finished the course in 35 minutes, 35.8 seconds, 15.6 seconds behind Defrasne.

Norway's Halvard Hanevold, who had already won Silver and Bronze Medals in Torino, was the leader at the halfway point of the Pursuit race, but missed three targets on his third shooting stage and finished fifth.

Americans Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey finished 38th and 50th, respectively.

Both competitions were made tougher by the weather. Several inches of snow fell Saturday morning. Thus, the leaders in the women’s race literally had to break trail for the competitors behind them. The unplowed penalty loop also made things a little tougher there, as well. And swirling winds made the shooting range more challenging.

Up next: The men’s 4 x 7.5K relay (scheduled for 5.a.m. CDT for you hardy souls who want to get up and watch it). The women’s 4 x 6K relay will be at a more civil hour later in the day.