ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Expectations are high that Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen will claim a record-equaling 12th Olympic medal at the Sochi Games, but Frenchman Martin Fourcade has what it takes to steal the limelight from the greatest biathlete.
The 25-year-old Frenchman, who already has an Olympic silver medal to his name after finishing second in the mass start in Vancouver, could very well own the demanding course at the Laura complex.
“It is in altitude and he is very strong in altitude, he is actually the best in the circuit,” said fellow Frenchman Raphael Poiree, a retired three-times Olympic medalist and seven-times world champion.
“The course is technical with a lot of bends and Martin is technical. He is also light, which makes him very strong in the climbs while his technique helps him in the descents. It’s all positive for him.”
World Cup leader Fourcade will start Saturday’s sprint as the favorite but he will face stern competition from Norwegian Emil Hegle Svendsen, the sprint and pursuit world champion.
“I come for gold, but at the end of the day, I just want to be happy with what I’ve done. I know I have to compete and to win but I also know I can’t have an influence on others’ performances,” Fourcade told a news conference on Thursday.
“I know I can win every race I enter, but I know that Emil (Hegle Svendsen) also enters the competition with a great level of self confidence.”
Bjoerndalen cannot be ruled out of contention, especially because the 40-year-old, who can emulate compatriot and cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie’s Winter Games record of 12 medals, has been improving lately.
“I will be happy with fourth place, if I give one hundred percent,” six-times Olympic champion Bjoerndalen said.
“I would be upset, but these things happen as the strongest always wins. I think there are three clear favorites at the Sochi Olympics. Svendsen, Tarjei Bo and Martin Fourcade.”
Vancouver proved to be a disastrous Games for Germany’s male biathletes, who failed to pick up a medal four years ago.
The country’s hopes will lie with Arnd Peiffer, who claimed gold in the sprint at the 2011 world championships in Khanty Mansiysk and Simon Schempp.
Both have been in excellent form in the sprint in this year’s World Cup season, with Peiffer currently in second place and Schempp fourth in the sprint world rankings.
Following Magdelena Neuner’s shock retirement at the age of 24, the women’s field is wide open.
The German was the most successful female athlete at the world championships with 17 medals but, suffering from a lack of motivation, she decided to quit the sport in March 2012.
Tora Berger looks set to take over from where Neuner left off, the Norwegian having won four gold medals at the last world championships in Nove Mesto.
Daria Domracheva and the young Czech biathlete Gabriela Soukalova are more than capable of upsetting Berger.
Domracheva, from Belarus, is the reigning mass start world champion and has won two World Cup events this season.
Germany’s 36-year-old Andrea Henkel is in the twilight of her career, having first competed at the Salt Lake City Games, but is still a force to be reckoned with although it would be a surprise if she adds to her four career Olympic medals in Sochi.
Editing by Julien Pretot