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Splitting hairs

Hakkinen misses medal by width of pencil lead

Posted: Sunday, February 12, 2006

Kasilof’s Jay Hakkinen was one more made shot away from a bronze medal and two more away from a gold medal Saturday in the men’s 20-kilometer biathlon at the Turin Olympics.

Hakkinen, 28, finished 10th with a time of 56 minutes, 10.9 seconds, on a sunny, calm day in the mountains of Cesana San Sicario, Italy. He was 1:47.9 behind gold medal winner Michael Greis of Germany and 39 seconds behind bronze medalist Halvard Hanevold of Norway.

Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, who swept all four biathlon gold medals at Salt Lake City, took the silver medal. He was 16 seconds out of first place.

The 10th-place finish by Hakkinen is the best Olympic biathlon finish by an American. The previous best was a 13th-place finish by Hakkinen in the pursuit race at Salt Lake City.

But Hakkinen’s long-stated goal has been to become the first American to earn an Olympic medal in biathlon. The three-time Olympian was within millimeters of that goal in the opening event of the Games.

In the 20-kilometer biathlon, athletes must do four shooting stages of five targets each. For each target missed, one minute is added to the biathlete’s time.

Hakkinen’s ski time was the second-fastest posted in the race. The only skier faster was Bjoerndalen, who skied 31 seconds faster than Hakkinen.

“It’s not surprising. I knew I had the potential,” Hakkinen said via cell phone shortly after the race concluded. “I give a lot of credit to (coach) Algis Shalna for getting me in the perfect shape at the perfect time.

“I could feel it before the race. My skis were unbelievable. I got lucky because I got behind some of the good Norwegian skiers. Everything was perfect with the race, except for the prone shooting.”

Hakkinen nailed all 10 of his targets standing up, but missed 2 of 5 in the first prone stage and 1 of 5 in the second prone stage.

The math is simple. By eliminating one of those misses, Hakkinen would have taken a minute off his time and earned the bronze medal. Eliminating two misses would have gotten him the gold.

That is the essence of biathlon, though. Each of the top 11 finishers, except for one, could have climbed the podium if they had eliminated misses.

“I’ve went through the trauma phase already,” Hakkinen said of his near miss. “Overall, I see this race as a step forward, to be skiing good enough where I can look to the podium in the next races.”

After the first shooting stage, Hakkinen’s errant shooting had him in 57th place. After that prone stage, Shalna told his staff on the course to have Hakkinen make an adjustment in his shooting form before the next prone stage.

The correction helped, as Hakkinen dropped four targets in the next prone stage. His one miss — and the one that cost him the podium — came on a split bullet.

A split bullet occurs when a bullet hits on the edge of a target. When standing, the target diameter is 115 millimeters. When prone, the target diameter is just 45 millimeters. When the bullet shatters, if more than half the bullet hits the target, the target falls. If less than half hits the target, the target does not go down.

Biathletes use .22-caliber rifles, so Hakkinen was no more than the width of a few pencil leads from a medal.

“There is a lot of personal disappointment, knowing that the one split bullet was the difference between being on the podium and not,” Shalna said in a statement released by the U.S. Biathlon Association. “But this result should show the world and the people who support us that we can compete with the best in the world. It is a clear message.”

If Hakkinen is able to maintain his skiing form, he will have a chance to send a clearer message in the 10-kilometer sprint Monday (11 p.m. on USA Network), the pursuit Saturday (10 a.m. on NBC) and the 15-kilometer mass start on Feb. 25 (7 p.m. on NBC). Hakkinen also will compete with an improving U.S. men’s relay team on Feb. 21 (2 a.m. on USA).

With his ski speed, Hakkinen’s medal chances increase in the sprint and pursuit. In the sprint, there are only two shooting rounds and the penalty for a miss is a 150-meter loop. This loop takes 30 to 35 seconds to ski, compared to the automatic minute penalty of the 20-kilometer individual.

The pursuit, which is 12.5 kilometers long, has four shooting stages, but again the penalty is a 150-meter loop.

Hakkinen has traditionally done better in the sprint and pursuit in his World Cup and Olympic career. His 10th-place finish Saturday was his best mark in the 20-kilometer individual, but he has fifth-, sixth- and two seventh-place finishes in World Cup sprints and a sixth-place finish in a World Cup pursuit.

Last year, Hakkinen finished 14th in a World Cup sprint at Cesana San Sicario. He said the Olympic course plays to his strengths because it is at altitude and involves lots of climbing.

“I hope to keep improving this Olympics and get what I came for,” Hakkinen said.

Also from the United States, Lowell Bailey was 27th, Jeremy Teela was 51st and Tim Burke was 58th.



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