WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) — Both men saw the 15-kilometer mass start biathlon race as a shot at redemption for an awful Winter Olympics.
Unlike American Tim Burke, Russia’s Evgeny Ustyugov delivered.
The World Cup leader won Russia’s first gold medal in a men’s Olympic biathlon race in 16 years when he captured the 15-kilometer mass start race Sunday, atoning for poor shooting and sluggish skiing in his previous three races.
“I realized that it’s high time we broke out of this vicious cycle, and God smiled upon us today,” said Ustyugov, the first Russian man to win biathlon gold at the games since Sergei Tchepikov took the 10K sprint in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994.
Ustyugov shot cleanly to finish in 35 minutes, 35.7 seconds, beating Martin Fourcade of France by 10.5 seconds. Pavol Hurajt of Slovakia won the bronze, finishing 16.6 seconds behind Ustyugov.
Like Ustyugov, Burke also donned the coveted yellow jersey as the overall World Cup leader this season. Only, he couldn’t turn his into gold.
Burke, hoping to provide a biathlon breakthrough at the Olympics for the United States, finished 18th.
“It’s a complete disappointment,” Burke said. “I came here with three podium finishes, ranked third in the World Cup, had never been outside the top 30 in a race. So yeah, it was awful.”
Fourcade gave France five biathlon medals at the Winter Olympics for the first time ever. He took the silver despite missing three targets, including two on the first, prone shoot and one on the final, standing shoot.
“I thought after the very first shooting portion that I was done,” said Fourcade, who caught up to the leaders by his fourth trip the shooting range and sped into second place on his final lap.
“You see this childhood dream that all of a sudden is becoming a reality,” Fourcade said.
Like Ustyugov, Hurajt hit all 20 targets.
Ustyugov, who finished fourth in the 20K and 15th in both the sprint and pursuit, where he missed four of 20 shots, improved both his ski times and his accuracy to win his first Olympic medal.
“I was very disappointed after the last race, and I know that one shot made the difference. So I wanted to make sure I hit every shot,” Ustyugov said.
It was the kind of bounce back that Burke, of Paul Smiths, N.Y., was hoping for. After three miserable finishes in these games, he entered the third shooting stage Sunday in third place — and promptly missed three of five targets.
“That’s biathlon,” Burke said. “That’s why it’s one of the most exciting sports in the world, because you can go from fourth to 24th in a matter of a few seconds. Unfortunately, I was on the wrong side of that today.”
Burke finished with four misses — he had to ski a 150-meter penalty loop for each one — and finished 1:09 behind the winner.
Burke said it was nerves more than weariness that led to the misses.
“I felt really great. I actually took it really easy on the third lap thinking that it would make it easier for me to shoot,” he said. “I just skated with the group. But when I set up for the standing, I had really shaky legs, and I had to fight to even get two hits. It wasn’t easy for me.”
The mass start, featuring the top 30 competitors in biathlon, is the ultimate race in the sport combining the rigor of cross-country skiing with the calm precision of rifle marksmanship. With all the competitors starting at the same time, there’s the added element of tactical risks on the track.
The Americans aren’t medal hopes in the final race, the relay, so they’ll head to Sochi, Russia, in four years still trying to end their drought.
Burke was done in by a mid-race snowstorm in the first race, the sprint. That proved a double-whammy because the start times for the pursuit were based on results from that first race. He finished in 47th in the first race and 46th in the second.
After another poor finish in the 20K race, where he missed five of 20 targets, he acknowledged he let the disappointment get to him. He suggested he came to Vancouver with unrealistic expectations and said he never quite got over his misfortune in the sprint.
He pledged to be aggressive in the mass start, and he was. But his shooting betrayed him again.
That problem also befell Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, the most decorated biathlete in Olympic history with 10 medals, half of them gold. He missed seven targets and finished in 27th place.
“Today was a horrible day for me,” Bjoerndalen said. “I had seven shooting mistakes, and I don’t think I’ve done that for maybe two years. So to do that in the Olympics was really disappointing.”
Burke knows the feeling.