Russian team restores national pride in biathalon at Sochi Olympics

Russia's relay team, from left,  Anton Shipulin, Alexey Volkov and Yevgeny Ustyugov celebrate with the Russian flag after winning the gold during the men's biathlon 4x7.5K relay at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.
Russia's relay team, from left, Anton Shipulin, Alexey Volkov and Yevgeny Ustyugov celebrate with the Russian flag after winning the gold during the men's biathlon 4x7.5K relay at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.
Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP

Mention biathlon to most Americans and they will be baffled. Is it a condensed form of decathlon or heptathlon? Is it a variation on modern pentathlon, that strange summer sport that includes fencing and horseback riding?

But biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, is hugely popular in Russia, and the host country was ecstatic Saturday when the men’s 4x7.5-kilometer relay won the final race of the Winter Olympics.

“The whole team has been waiting for this gold medal,” Dmitry Malyshko said.

Since biathlon was introduced at the 1960 Olympics, Russia and the former Soviet Union have dominated, winning 19 gold medals. But through 10 of 11 events, Russia had won only two silver medals and one bronze at the Laura venue at a stadium packed with impatient fans.

The four-man Russian team missed eight targets but managed to hold on to third place until anchor Anton Shipulin overtook Germany’s Simon Schempp on the final lap.

“With every step you heard the people shouting,” Evgeny Ustyugov said.

Shipulin and Schempp both shot clean final rounds and left the range at the same time. Shipulin passed Schempp with half a mile to go.

Russia won the Olympic relay from 1968 through 1988, but the sport had struggled of late. Billionaire Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov took the team under his wing, became federation president and poured money into its budget in an effort to restore its success and national pride. The investment paid off Saturday, although Prokhorov said he’d resign if Russia didn’t win at least two golds.

Norway was the leader until anchor Emil Hegle Svendsen missed three targets. Norway finished fourth, which meant 40-year-old Ole Einar Bjoerndalen failed to win a record ninth gold at the Winter Olympics.

Bjoerndalen is a superstar in his country, where biathlon, first devised for hunting, gained popularity in the 19th century as a method of patrolling the border. Today, it is a major spectator sport and earns high TV ratings throughout Europe. Top athletes can make seven figures through endorsement deals.

Bjoerndalen won two golds to become the most decorated Winter Olympian. Now he plans to retire.

There’s been lots of drama at the stadium, reached by a 20-minute gondola ride. Ukraine won its first gold of the Olympics with an emotional victory in the women’s 4x6-kilometer relay on Friday. The athletes missed five targets but avoided penalty loops.

“When I came to the podium I cried and tried to hide it behind the skis,” said Valj Semerenko, who teamed with her twin, Vita, and Juliya Dzhyma and Olena Pidhrushna to win the last women’s event. “It was not only my tears but the tears of the whole Ukraine.”

Pidhrushna asked people to stand for a moment of silence in memory of Ukrainians killed in the protests in Kiev.

A French athlete collapsed on the course. A German woman was kicked out for doping. Fog delayed races for two days. Heavy snow clogged rifle sights during the men’s 15K race, which Svendsen won by a ski tip in a photo finish.

And the Americans could not end their losing streak. They’ve never made an Olympic biathlon podium. Frugal funding of the team doesn’t compare to that of European teams.

“We’re really frustrated because we both had a chance at winning medals,” Tim Burke said of himself and Lowell Bailey after poor finishes in slushy conditions in the mass start 15K race.

But Bailey provided a breakthrough at the Games with his eighth-place finish in the 20K, highest individual finish for an American. And the U.S. mixed-relay team placed ninth.

“Any of 40 guys could make the podium,” Burke said. “We chose to do the hardest Olympic sport. And we don’t regret it.”

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