The new leader of the Norwegian biathlon team
Johannes Thingnes Bø rose to the top of the international biathlon circuit during the 2017-2018 season, challenging the supremacy of France's Martin Fourcade, and winning three medals at the PyeongChang 2018 Games, including a masterful gold in the individual 20km. Given that he is only 25, we are likely to see him go faster, higher and stronger in the years to come.
Twenty years old and already an Olympian
The 2010-2011 season belonged to Tarjei Bø, who took the last big World Cup Crystal Globe before Frenchman Martin Fourcade asserted his dominance, along with five medals – including three golds – at the World Championships in Khanty-Mansiysk (Russia). Yet, during this stratospheric season, Tarjei, aged 23 at the time, was aware of another athlete snapping at his heels: "There is another biathlete who is better: my younger brother Johannes. I will greatly fear him if he joins the World Cup circuit!" Five years his junior, Johannes started to make a name for himself in international competition at youth level (gold medal in the 7.5km sprint at the European Youth Olympic Winter Festival in Liberec in 2011) and then junior level (three wins at the 2012 World Championships in Kontiolahti, and two more in 2013 in Obertilliach). His progression was halted after he broke his collar bone while cycling, but he was able to join the World Cup circuit and take his first two wins – in two consecutive events – in December 2013 (sprint and pursuit) in Grand Bornand, which led to his selection, at the age of 20, for the Norwegian team for the 2014 Sochi Games. "It was a dream that became a reality," he said at the time.
From strength to strength
After his first Olympic experience in the Laura Biathlon Centre, where his best individual result was eighth place in the mass start, Johannes was on the rise, taking his first world title as he crossed the finish line of the sprint in Kontiolahti on 7 February 2015; his second when he beat Martin Fourcade in the final lap of the mass start at the Oslo-Homenkollen World Championships in 2016; and several World Cup victories, mainly in the sprint. Very powerful and often compelling to watch on skis, his shooting remained inconsistent. But, from 2016, this quickly changed with the arrival of Frenchman Siegfried Mazet as shooting coach for the Norwegian team. By rapidly improving his combination of accuracy and speed when shooting five targets, the younger of the Bø brothers became the athlete to fear on the circuit!
A duel at the top
The world number 1 Martin Fourcade therefore met his match during the first part of the 2017-2018 Olympic season and was even forced to accept the superiority of his young Norwegian rival, whose new symbiosis with his rifle secured him eight victories in twenty World Cup events before the PyeongChang Games, and some of these with enormous leads. He shared his first Crystal Globe with the Frenchman, for the individual, and thus became one of the big favourites each time he appeared at the start line in the Alpensia Biathlon Centre. But his first two events at the Games ended in disaster: he missed the podium by a considerable margin in both the sprint (31st) and the pursuit (21st) through a series of shooting errors.
A masterful victory
Finally, on 15 February 2018, the big day arrived: two shooting errors, resulting in a two-minute penalty, would normally make a victory in the 20km individual impossible. But not for Johannes Bø! He gave an awe-inspiring demonstration of strength on his skis to win the gold medal, with a 5.5-second lead over Slovenia's Jakov Fak, whose shooting had been faultless, and who was therefore beaten by over two minutes on his skis. "It's very special! It's maybe the second time I've cried in the last 10 years. The first time was after my first World Championship title in 2015," he explained. "We train very hard for this and when you get the achievement, an Olympic gold medal, it's emotional. I'm very proud. Winning the Olympic Winter Games is the biggest achievement as an athlete, and even though you are among the favourites and among the best in your sport, it's not always you that wins the gold medal." The Viking, who had seemed uneasy about his new status in a country where biathlon is the number one sport, had finally been relieved of a heavy burden. "It gives me confidence. I know that my shooting is back to where it was and I am able to push hard on my skis."
Decisive in the two relays
After a blunder in the mass start (three faults on the second prone shooting targets removed any chance of a podium place; he finished 16th), Johannes was one of the key performers in the two relays, the mixed on 20 February and the men's on 23 February. Taking the third leg in the mixed event, he brought Norway back into medal contention after two difficult legs by Marte Olsbu and Tiril Eckoff, allowing Emil Hegle Svendsen to secure the silver medal behind France in the anchor leg. The performance was repeated in the men's relay, when he was in third position again: this time distanced from the podium by his brother Tarjei, he was leading the race when he handed over to Svendsen! But in the end Svendsen was beaten by Sweden's Fredrik Lindtsröm. Johannes left Alpensia with three medals, one gold and two silver. He was the best Norwegian biathlete at the 2018 Games.
A golden future?
This duel that has persisted between Fourcade and Johannes throughout the winter – the matchup that has taken world biathlon to new levels, a rivalry "greater than that between Raphaël Poirée and Ole Einar Bjørndalen in the 2000s", according to the head of French biathlon, Stéphane Bouthiaux – is turning to the advantage of the five-time Olympic champion. Aside from the shared Globe for the individual, Johannes finished second in each of the other standings (overall, sprint, pursuit and mass start) behind Fourcade. Following the retirement of Emil Hegle Svendsen and Ole Einar Bjørndalen, Johannes has become the leader of the Norwegian biathlon team, and can pursue the dream he announced in 2017, "to become the king of the Olympic Games". The 2018-2022 Olympiad is set to be an enthralling one!