PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Fiery Frenchman Martin Fourcade did his best to dominate the biathlon headlines at the Pyeongchang Games by becoming his country’s most successful Olympian of all time, but a young, Swedish team leads a pack that is snapping at his heels.
Fourcade’s three gold medals looked like being the stand-out performance in Pyeongchang, but the Swedes made a late rush for glory, coming form eighth to second to medal in the women’s relay and winning gold in the men’s.
Conditions at the Alpensia Biathlon Centre were challenging in virtually every competition, with strong, swirling winds and occasional snowfalls making both shooting and skiing difficult.
The biathlon has previously been the preserve of Norwegian Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, whose 13 Olympic medals made him the most successful Winter Games athlete ever until compatriot and cross-country skier Marit Bjoergen surpassed him in Pyeongchang.
Bjoerndalen wasn’t selected for these Games and with three gold medals under his belt, Fourcade looked set to usher in a new era by becoming the dominant athlete in the sport, alongside Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier.
The 29-year-old Frenchman put the nightmare of a sprint loss four years previously in Sochi behind him by lunging across the line to win the 15km mass start, and he gave a masterful performance to anchor the French team to mixed relay gold.
Whereas Fourcade’s gold medals were rooted in his tremendous shooting and ice-cold nerves, the young Swedish pretenders that burst out of the pack often had to rely on their high-octane skiing to put them on the podium.
Hanna Oeberg set the tone by winning the women’s 15km pursuit event and Sebastian Samuelsson was runner-up to Fourcade in the 12.5km pursuit, but it was Oeberg’s final-leg spurt for silver in the women’s relay that blew the Games wide open for the Swedes.
Inspired by their team mates, the men went out the following night and won gold with a gritty performance by all four relay racers as they cruised to victory.
Coming to the Games on the back of five world championship golds, Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier experienced both highs and lows at the Alpensia resort, starting with two gold medals before suffering an alarming drop in form.
As Dahlmeier’s star faded, Darya Domracheva of Belarus took over, becoming the first female biathlete to win four Olympic gold medals by anchoring the women’s relay team to victory.
Second to Fourcade in the World Cup rankings, Johannes Thingnes Boe of Norway gave a glimpse of his prodigious talent, his powerful skiing helping him win the 20km individual gold and two silver medals in the men’s and mixed relays.
Most importantly for the sport, there was no single dominant athlete, despite Fourcade’s heroics for France. Weather conditions made sure every race was wide open, and wayward shooting was quickly punished.
World Cup action will now resume with many familiar names at the top of the leaderboards, but some superb performances, not least by the Swedes, will give the young pretenders even more confidence as the season reaches its climax.
Reporting by Philip O'Connor; editing by Sudipto Ganguly