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The International Biathlon Union loves tinkering with new, short, exciting events. And at the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games, the IOC’s newest format, the single mixed relay, was enjoyed by athletes and fans alike at its international debut. A breathtaking photo-finish conclusion at the Birkbeineren Stadium, where China took the gold medal, certainly helped.
The single mixed relay featured one male and one female from each nation, each skiing the course twice and shooting four times in total (the more familiar mixed relay, which takes place on Sunday, features two girls and two boys, each lapping once).
China took the gold, a mere 0.2 seconds ahead of Norway, with Russia getting bronze, 14.9 seconds adrift.
China has never won a biathlon medal at a senior Winter Olympic Games, and the duo of Meng Fanqi and Zhu Zhenyu seemed as shocked as everyone else. “I am very surprised that we won,” said Meng. “We haven’t been good over the last few days and I didn’t expect to get a medal. But we were very steady and strong in the shooting element. I’m so happy.”
Spectators snacks pictured on the snow during the biathlon single mixed relay at Birkebeineren Biathlong Stadium. Photo: YIS / IOC Jed Leicester
The large, enthusiastic crowd were disappointed to see Norwegian Fredrik Qvist Bucher-Johannessen, who partnered Marthe Krakstad Johansen, beaten by the length of a snowflake at the finish line. “Today my confidence was low after horrid shooting on the first lap,” said Bucher-Johannessen afterwards. “I had [adjusted my rifle sights] wrong, and had to adjust after the break. But my coach gave me a pep talk and got me a little aggressive again.
”The format, meanwhile, met with approval. “I hope that it with be used again in the future, that would be fun,” said Bucher-Johannessen. “I hope the crowd thinks so too, even though I lost the sprint. It’s great that there are so many countries that can compete for the medals, just look at China.”
There’s a pride evident among the competitors that their sport keeps itself fresh. “It’s a very innovative sport and that’s part of why I love it,” said Ben Churchill from Canada. “The sport has introduced a lot of great new things, for example in mass starts, instead of double-poling, you can skate right away now. They’re always striving to improve, to keep the sport moving forward.
“The single mixed relay is another example. I tried it at a senior World Cup recently and it was very interesting. The biggest challenge is staying warm between laps. I just ran about in my boots today, to keep the muscles engaged.
You have to figure out what works, because there’s a gap of 10 minutes or so. Psychologically, it’s like you’re racing two different races. It’s a whole other beast and it’s very fun.”
Even the rock-bottom Australian side had positive thoughts. “I enjoyed the race a lot, and I don’t mind losing against the best,” said Australia’s Jethro Mahon, who came in 27th. “It is weird having to go, stop, go, but it adds a new dynamic. That’s biathlon for you. The change keeps you on your toes. A lot of sports just stay the same, but biathlon never gets stale.”
Written by YIS Nick Moore
Nick Moore is a reporter for the Lillehammer Youth Information Service ‘YIS’. A sports and music journalist with 20 years of experience, he covered the London 2012 Olympic Games and the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games. Based in the UK, he has written for numerous titles including FourFourTwo, The Independent, Q and The Times.