The pre-Olympic Biathlon World Cup was held in Sochi last weekend. Source: AFP / East News
The pre-Olympic World Cup in Sochi turned out better for the Russian team than February’s World Championships in the Czech Republic, with the team taking three medals over six events. However, the Russian men’s team performed markedly better than the women’s squad.
Many participants will have cause to remember the first ever Biathlon World Cup stage to be held in Sochi. The layout of the track — the same track that will host this most popular and important of events at the Winter Olympic Games in just a year’s time — is sure to stick in almost everyone’s mind. The track itself is by no means easy, featuring some sharp climbs and mind-bending downward slopes.
Russia’s Maxim Tsvetkov went flying off one of these descents in the men’s sprint, ending up with a concussion from a fall that looked very nasty indeed. Yet this was to be expected, as the difficulties here took their toll on biathletes far more experienced than Tsvetkov.
Sochi’s temperate climate was to blame for other problems. The organizers were forced to hold off the start of the women’s sprint for half an hour, due to unexpected sleet, while competitors and venue officials alike moaned that the ski events were bitterly compromised by adverse weather conditions.
Fans will remember the World Cup for having brought some of the best results over recent weeks. Over the six events in the Sochi program, the Russian team won more medals than it had done at the World Championships in February. At Nove Mesto, the team only managed to win two medals, with Anton Shipulin taking a silver and a bronze.
This was the third World Championships in row in which Russia did not win a single gold. In Sochi, however, the Russian team took the podium three times and finally won an event.
Still, winning here is no guarantee that the Russian team will win in Sochi next year. The team had two full weeks to prepare under home conditions — conditions which certainly gave them an advantage over their foreign rivals, who had less time to adapt to the altitude of almost one mile and the far-from-conventional track.
Even so, such preparation — above normal for a World Cup, but maybe not for the Olympics — did not lead to success across the board. It was really only the men’s team that made an impression over the weekend, even though they blew the opening individual race stage; the two remaining days went excellently for the Russian team.
Almost all the Russian athletes performed well in the sprint events, with the possible exception of Anton Shipulin, who was recovering from a cold. The alertness of Vancouver Olympic champion Evgeny Ustyugov carried him into second place, behind the Frenchman and World Cup leader Martin Fourcade, who seems to have found his zone this season.
The men’s relay belonged to the Russian team, although disaster was only narrowly averted in the second stage, which was run by Alexander Loginov. The top junior athlete in the world, Loginov had outdone himself in Oslo just a week before, where he took bronze competing against the world’s top skiers. He had performed well in the sprint and earned the right to compete in the relay team.
Unfortunately, he made a mess of things shooting in the prone position and had to do a penalty lap. It seemed that the team would not be able to get back into the medal standings, let alone win gold. But it was thanks to the same Loginov (who did not make another mistake), alongside the absolutely flawless Dmitry Malyshko and Evgeny Ustyugov, that the Russian team raced home to an astonishing gold.
The story with the women’s team went rather differently. Things began well with a silver for Olga Zaitseva, but then fell apart badly in the individual events. Two catastrophically poor results gave reason to wonder about just how much preparation had actually gone into these “individual” events.
The gap between the Russian sportswomen and the leaders was enormous. Even Zaitseva — the strongest team member in the sprint — only barely managed a top-10 finish. Russia was effectively out of the relay after the first leg; trainers had to bring Svetlana Sleptsova back to with smelling salts, after she had trailed the leaders by one-and-a-half minutes.
First published in Russian in Kommersant Daily.
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