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.
“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.”