UPDATED: It’s been a dramatic World Championships for Norway’s star biathlon skiers this week in Hochfilzen, Austria. Ole Einar Bjørndalen went from the proverbial thrill of victory to the agony of defeat, the women’s team logged its worst performance ever and Emil Hegle Svendsen, who collapsed after a race last weekend, ended up 27th in the men’s 20-kilometer race that he’d been favoured to win.
That honour on Thursday went instead to Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid, New York, who won the US’ first biathlon gold medal ever. It was a sensational and hugely surprising finish that Bailey himself could hardly believe. At an age of 35, he finally became a World Champion.
While all the athletes were full of congratulations for Bailey, it was another bitter disappointment for Svendsen, who also had collapsed after a sprint competition on Saturday. He remained lying on the snow for 10 minutes, utterly exhausted and worrying everyone in the area. Svendsen, who finished an uncharacteristically poor 36th, was finally able to stand up, was helped out of the finish area and taken by ambulance for an immediate medical exam.
“It was almost embarrassing,” Svendsen told newspaper Aftenposten on Monday after he had to miss Sunday’s competition. The 31-year-old former Olympic medalist said he’d become very dizzy, nauseous and lost consciousness for a while before he recovered enough to get up. Medical personnel later said he’d suffered an abrupt loss of blood pressure, but no one could say why.
The sport of biathlon, which involves fast cross-country skiing interspersed with shooting that has to be carried out with a hammering heart and quivering muscles, is extremely tough. Svendsen was nonetheless favoured for the gold medal on Thursday, but that didn’t happen. Nor did the other Norwegians who have routinely been on the winners’ podium in recent do very well, with the best showing claimed by Johannes Bø in 8th place and Lars Birkeland in 9th.
Norway’s biathlon legend Ole Einar Bjørndalen was perhaps the most disappointed of all, finishing 47th and claiming afterwards that “it was a bad day, nothing more to say about that.” It was also a big decline from his jubilation over winning his 58th medal in a world championship on Sunday. Bjørndalen won the bronze in the 12.5 kilometer pursuit at an age of 43, a major accomplishment even for a man who’s set records for all his medals (many of them gold) during his long career.
Johannes Thingnes Bø, 20 years younger than Bjørndalen, could also celebrate that day with the silver medal, just behind French skiing star Martin Fourcade who took the gold. Both were still worried about Svendsen, though, with Bjørndalen calling the episode the day before “scary.”
Norway’s women biathlon skiers haven’t been doing well at all, with some calling their performance at the World Championships both a “fiasco” and a “crisis” after Tiril Eckhoff missed her shots and even forgot her rifle’s magazine after the third round on Wednesday. She logged the best Norwegian performance, but in a lowly 39th place. On Friday, the women skiing a relay of four six-kilometer laps ended 11th. “We’re sorry,” sa Eckhoff to Norwegian Broadcating (NRK).
Svendsen, meanwhile, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Thursday that he’s simply not in shape and was unsure whether he should take part in the men’s relay on Saturday. On Thursday night, team coaches decided that he should, and could.