Bjoerndalen denied again as Germany wins men's biathlon relay

Updated: February 21, 2006, 10:08 AM ET
Associated Press

CESANA, Italy -- Ole Einar Bjoerndalen's Norwegian teammates were itching to help their struggling star win his first gold medal of the Turin Games.

Instead, they buried him.

Bjoerndalen's brilliant finish, in which he made up an astonishing 54.8 seconds on the leaders, wasn't enough to keep Germany from winning the men's biathlon relay Tuesday.

Russia took the silver and France the bronze, and the Americans were thrilled to take ninth, led by Jay Hakkinen, who dispatched his demons from his epic collapse in the 10km race by giving the United States the lead after the first of four legs.

The Norwegians trailed the U.S. by almost one minute after the first leg and had fallen behind surging Germany by more than two minutes when Bjoerndalen began the final leg for the pre-race favorites.

With a dazzling race in which he blazed across the glazed snow and feverishly knocked down all 10 of his targets, Bjoerndalen gave the Norwegians a respectable fifth-place finish.

"It was hard to start from two minutes behind," said Bjoerndalen, who began 2 minutes, 6.9 seconds off the lead. "I'm very satisfied with my own race. I went out to get on the podium."

He simply couldn't make up for his teammates' poor performances and catch the Germans -- Ricco Gross, Michael Roesch, Sven Fischer and Michael Greis -- who covered the San Sicario course in 1 hour, 21 minutes, 51.5 seconds for their fourth Olympic gold in the event.

Biathlon's biggest star and a five-time gold-medalist, Bjoerndalen is now 0-for-4 in Italy after sweeping all four gold medals at Salt Lake City in 2002.

He has one last chance with Saturday's finale, the mass start, which is making its Olympic debut and features the top 30 competitors.

Among them is Hakkinen, who hopes to give the United States its first medal in the European-dominated sport that combines the rigor of cross-country skiing with the calm precision of rifle marksmanship.

The U.S. team of Hakkinen, Tim Burke, Lowell Bailey and Jeremy Teela met their goal in the relay by cracking the top 10. The race marked Hakkinen's return to competition after his fiasco in the men's 10km race, when he missed all five of his prone shots for the first time in his life.

This time, Hakkinen had clean shoots in both the prone and standing stages and gave the Americans the lead at the first handoff.

"It was a huge thrill to come in first," Hakkinen said. "One of the Olympic dreams is down. A couple more to go."

In the relay, competitors get eight bullets to hit five targets on each of their shoots. If they don't knock down all the targets, they have to ski a 150-meter penalty loop. After their five-bullet magazine is emptied, they have to hand-load .22-caliber bullets from their rifle stock, which takes 8-10 seconds for each.

Hakkinen avoided any penalties by knocking down his 10 targets in 13 shots.

"Since you have three extra rounds, you can be a little more freestyle," Hakkinen said. "So, you go for it because speed is important in shooting. That's what gets you ahead and that's what I did."

Russia finished 20.9 seconds behind Germany, and France edged Sweden for the bronze in a photo finish when Carl Johan Bergman stumbled near the finish line, allowing Raphael Poiree's right boot to cross just ahead of his.

"I'm a bit surprised that I won the battle at the end because I'm not really such a strong sprinter," Poiree said. "I was lucky."

Bjoerndalen, not so much.

He had visions of his second straight sweep of the golds in Italy but has managed only two silvers so far.

Austria, the subject of a surprise doping raid over the weekend, took last place in the 17-team field. Their entry didn't include Wolfgang Perner or Wolfgang Rottmann, who were kicked off the team after leaving the Olympics following the midnight raids Saturday.

"We were very upset by these checks but we never considered not taking part in this race," said Austrian five-time Olympian Ludwig Gredler. "Let's hope that these checks show we're a clean team and that eventually someone will say sorry for everything we've had to endure."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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