The king misses … (but Ole Einar Bjoerndalen’s record pursuit isn’t over)

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The pursuit continues for Ole Einar Bjoerndalen.

In agonizingly close fashion, the man they call the Biathlon King failed to break the record for most career Winter Olympic medals on Monday night.

His performance, though, was every bit what you’ve come to expect from one of history’s greatest Olympians.

Bjoerndalen, 40, finished fourth for the first time in 23 career Olympic races in the 12.5km pursuit won by flamboyant Frenchman Martin Fourcade. Bjoerndalen missed capturing his 13th career Olympic medal by 1.7 seconds, also the closest margin from which he’s missed an Olympic podium.

It was a heartbreaking result for the flag-waving Norwegian throng that trekked to the Laura Biathlon Stadium hoping to witness history.

Bjoerndalen shrugged.

“Fourth place is OK,” he said amid drips of drizzle afterward.

Bjoerndalen spoke with the patience of a man who knows more medals are on the way in relays next week. Two nights earlier, Bjoerndalen stunned by winning the opening 10km sprint for his 12th career medal and seventh gold.

He entered Sochi a contender for silvers or bronzes individually but was no longer Norway’s best biathlete, let alone the world’s. It was thought he would have to wait until next week’s relays to become the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time. The record is held by his friend, 1990s Norwegian cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie, who won 12 medals and eight golds.

Bjoerndalen’s sprint victory Saturday, witnessed in person by Daehlie, gave him a head start in the pursuit Monday. Biathletes begin the pursuit staggered based on their finish in the sprint.

Bjoerndalen won the sprint by one second over Austrian Dominik Landertinger, so he wore the No. 1 bib and skied out of the start in front of the field under the lights. Landertinger followed one second later, and so on and so on. First man to the finish wins.

The 12.5km pursuit consists of five 2.5km loops and four bouts of shooting, the first two prone and the last two standing. Clean shooting is a must, hitting all five circular targets from 50m away per shooting station. The targets are just shy of 2 inches wide for prone and 4.5 inches for standing. Each miss costs a skier 20 to 30 seconds in a 150m penalty loop over a 34-minute race.

Biathletes ski mostly outside view of the main stadium stands. The crowd watches on a jumbo screen next to the shooting range and cheers wildly when the biathletes ski into the stadium for their shooting. That’s when the in-race standings become clear.

On Monday, heart-pounding instrumental music, such as Two Steps from Hell’s “Black Blade,” played throughout the half-hour. Biathlon is bigger in Russia than Norway, so more cheers were directed toward native son Anton Shipulin than Bjoerndalen, despite the shot at history.

Bjoerndalen entered the stadium for the first round of shooting in the lead group and shot clean. But he would miss once in each of the next three rounds, costing him more than one minute of time in penalty loops.

Nobody else who finished in the top seven had more than one miss. That Bjoerndalen stayed in the medal hunt despite poor shooting was a testament to his incredible skiing, even at age 40.

Fourcade missed once but went clean in the final round to clinch his gold, pumping his arms toward the crowd and eventually blowing a kiss as he crossed the finish line for his first Olympic gold. Czech Ondrej Moravec came in 14 seconds later. He went 20 for 20 shooting after starting 15 seconds behind Bjoerndalen due to their results from Saturday.

The battle was for bronze. It came down to France’s Jean Guillame Beatrix and Bjoerndalen.

Beatrix started 39 seconds after Bjoerndalen but had moved 9.6 seconds ahead with 1.6km of skiing left (or one mile). Beatrix, 25, is in his first Olympics.

“I was aware of the situation thanks to the big screen in the stadium,” Beatrix said. “I had the situation under control.”

Still, Bjoerndalen spent the next three minutes reeling in the youngster and entered the stadium one final time seemingly within striking distance.

But the King missed.

It was apparent on the final straightaway he wouldn’t have enough to pass the Frenchman. Bjoerndalen crossed the finish and collapsed to the snow in exhaustion, customary in biathlon and cross-country skiing. Bjoerndalen said he thought he could catch Beatrix, but that he started his final kick too late. Even the greats make mistakes.

“I’m really sad about that,” Bjoerndalen said.

The shooting was what cost him.

“One miss too much,” Bjoerndalen said. “You need to hit almost everything if you want to win.”

Bjoerndalen didn’t dwell on spending another night tied with Daehlie in total medals and one behind in golds. He said he doesn’t feel pressure this close to the solo records.

“Medals is one part of the Olympics,” said Bjoerndalen, who is in the running for a spot on the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission to be voted on by athletes competing at these Games.

Nor did he use his age as an excuse. He has two more individual events left in addition to the relays. The next is Thursday.

“When I won gold two days ago my age wasn’t a problem,” he said. “I was fighting [Monday], and that was most important.”

Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara
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Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

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A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)
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There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

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