CESANA, Italy - Michael Greis skied into the final shooting stage still in Ole Einar Bjoerndalen’s shadow.
When Bjoerndalen missed two targets and Greis shot clean, the 29-year-old German became the first three-time gold medalist at the Winter Olympics.
He also surpassed his Norwegian rival as biathlon’s biggest star.
“It’s incredible that I’m the most successful athlete of the games,” said Greis, who won the first Olympic men’s 15km mass start race Saturday.
“It’s a very emotional moment and all my nerves have gone now,” he said.
In the women’s race, Anna Carin Olofsson gave Sweden its first biathlon gold medal since 1960, winning by 18.8 seconds over Kati Wilhelm of Germany, whose teammate, Uschi Disl took third. Olofsson’s poise and precision at the first standing shoot were so spectacular that she had enough of a cushion to win despite skiing a penalty lap later.
“I haven’t been thinking about it yet, what it means to Sweden,” said the former Olympic cross-country skier, competing in her first Winter Games as a biathlete.
“But for me,” she said, “it means a lot.”
It looked for much of the race as if Bjoerndalen would finally take a gold medal in these games. But as he circled the 150-meter penalty loop twice, Greis, who entered the final shooting stage in third place, flew past him.
Greis won by 6.3 seconds ahead of silver medalist Tomasz Sikora, who missed one target on his final shoot. Bjoerndalen crossed 12.3 seconds behind Greis for the bronze.
Greis also won the 20km race and was part of Germany’s gold medal-winning relay team. He became the first athlete at the Turin Games with three gold medals; as of Saturday morning, ten others had two.
“I’m now going home with another gold medal,” Greis said. “I think this is a really good surprise.”
Bjoerndalen’s shutout was just as shocking.
With a fifth race added at these games, Bjoerndalen had visions of topping his performance from four years ago when he swept all four golds at Salt Lake City. But he managed only two silvers and a bronze in Italy.
“Sure, I came to the Olympics to win gold, but I was not good enough in the right moment,” Bjoerndalen said. “But I made three good races, and that’s OK for me.”
Bjoerndalen exited the penalty loop 24 seconds off the lead and his frenetic final dash cut the deficit in half. But once again, he was too far behind to add to his collection of five golds, including one from Nagano.
American Jay Hakkinen capped an up-and-down Olympics with a 13th-place finish. He was running in sixth before falling back on the final lap.
“These were not the best conditions for me today,” Hakkinen said of the San Sicario course that was covered with several inches of fresh snow from an overnight storm. “In the last loop, my legs were spent from the soft conditions and there was nothing I could do to hang on.”
Still, Hakkinen had hoped to give America its first biathlon medal in the Italian Alps.
“Maybe it was not my time,” he said. “Sometimes you have to get close before you finally make the final step.”
The mass start, featuring the top 30 competitors in biathlon, is the ultimate race in the sport combining the rigor of cross-country skiing with the calm precision of rifle marksmanship. With all the competitors starting at the same time, there’s the added elements of jockeying and tactical risks on the loops.
Although it hasn’t been approved for the Vancouver Games, the International Olympic Committee was on hand Saturday to evaluate the men’s and women’s races for 2010.
Greis will be the favorite in Vancouver now, and Bjoerndalen’s performance will serve as a case study of what it’s like to handle the pressure of defending one’s cache of gold.
“Life changed after Salt Lake,” Bjoerndalen said. “So, I think Greis just has to stay the same guy he is today. The normal days come soon after the Olympics.”
And before long, the mantle is passed.
Check out the best images from the 2006 Winter Olympics.