French flag-bearer Fourcade harbours high hopes for PyeongChang
Few athletes will head to PyeongChang 2018 with such a burden of expectation as French biathlete Martin Fourcade. The world number one has set himself a minimum target of one gold, but having dominated the biathlon circuit in recent years he has a real chance of winning a medal in all six events.
By any standard, Fourcade's 2016/17 season was a phenomenal one. He featured on the podium at 22 of 26 IBU World Cup competitions and claimed victory in 14 races, propelling him to an unprecedented sixth consecutive IBU World Cup large crystal globe, as well as the small crystal globe for each of the individual disciplines. He also scooped five World Championship medals at Hochfilzen (AUT), taking his total to 25 and underlining his status as one of biathlon's true greats.
"I only have one goal this winter: the Olympic Games," says Fourcade, who will be the French flag-bearer and team captain in PyeongChang. "But to do well at the Games, first I need to race the World Cup and boost my self-confidence. That's why I'll be there and I plan to take part in every race. But my season won't depend on it".
Despite the pressure to bring back gold, France's most decorated Winter Olympian is refusing to set the bar too high; for now, he is not looking beyond the first event, the sprint, which takes place two days after the Opening Ceremony.
"I said that my aim in PyeongChang was for one gold medal," he explains. "I need to win the first one before saying 'I want three!'. So that's my aim. I'll be more ambitious if I manage to get that one, which is already quite ambitious!"
The trails of Alpensia are old stomping grounds for Fourcade, who first competed there at the World Championships in 2009. Returning to the same venue in 2017, his victory at the pre-Olympic test event assured him of his sixth consecutive crystal globe and saw him equal Ole Einar Bjørndalen's record for most World Cup victories in a single season (he then went on to surpass it).
"It's great to win the World Cup here at the site of next season's Games," he said after that victory. "It's an emotional moment for me, and I hope there will be more moments like this here next year!"
"The stadium is quite windy, but I hope it won't be too bad for the Games, as it can make the results a bit unpredictable," he added. "I feel good here and I'm looking forward to returning. It's a great biathlon stadium with good trails that challenge you."
Fourcade knows he faces plenty of competition for gold in PyeongChang. "I don't keep a close eye on my opponents, but if I had to name one it would be the German Benedikt Doll," he says. "He wasn't at his peak last year but could make huge improvements this season. Then there are the usual favourites, like the Bø brothers, Johannes and Tarjei, Emil Hegle Svendsen, Anton Shipulin, Dominik Landertinger, Julian Eberhard in the sprint and, of course, Ole Einar Bjørndalen."
Leading by example
Fourcade will be on the start line in all six biathlon events in PyeongChang, but the relays hold a special place in his heart. "It would be amazing to win a relay," he admits. "I experienced that as part of the mixed relay team at the 2016 World Championships in Oslo. A team medal at the Olympic Games is something I haven't achieved yet and I'd love to. Both our men and women's teams are strong and we have a good chance in the relays."
Prior to heading for the Republic of Korea, Fourcade will be competing closer to home, at the World Cup in Annecy-Le Grand Bornand. In any other year, a World Cup on home soil would be the season highlight, but the Frenchman is clear where his focus lies at the moment. "[The World Cup] will mean good media coverage, but I only have one aim this season - the Games. I wouldn't swap an Olympic medal for a triple victory at Le Grand Bornand!"
Before he takes to the snow, Fourcade will lead his country into the Olympic Stadium in PyeongChang for the Opening Ceremony on 9 February. "It's a great honour and will make me very happy," he says. "But I approach it quite simply, with the desire to be me, to be what I have been these last 10 years. I was given this role because what I have brought to French skiing deserves this honour, this responsibility".
"The Olympic Games are a unique event for athletes and there's a lot of pressure. I'm lucky that I have some experience, have already realised my dream of winning Olympic gold. I'll be more at ease, and while I'll be focusing on my own performance, if I can be helpful, I will share my experience with others. If I can be approachable, down-to-earth, ambitious and perform well, I will have succeeded in my role as captain," concludes France's greatest biathlete.