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Disappointing day for U.S. in biathlon

N. Europeans are still dominating ski-shoot sport

SOLDIER HOLLOW — The all-powerful Northern Europeans proved they're the best in the world, never mind that Americans have the home-court advantage.

In a sport that combines fast skiing and clean shooting, the best the Americans could do during Friday's World Cup sprint competitions was to rank among the top 30.

Neither Jay Hakkinen nor Rachel Steer was skiing fast in the 7.5-kilometer/10-kilometer sprint, but 9-for-10 shooting ensured each a spot for the pursuit races on Saturday.

In the sprint competition, biathletes shoot twice, prone and standing. After skiing a lap around the course, they enter a shooting range where they try to slow down their breathing before squeezing off five shots from a .22-caliber rifle, picking off targets the size of a silver dollar about 50 meters away. For each missed shot they ski a lap around a 150-meter penalty loop.

The Americans performed much better in Friday's sprint races than in Wednesday's 20-kilometer/15-kilometer races, where they placed in the bottom half of the field.

"Today, I was stronger," said Hakkinen, who finished 33rd with a time of 24 minutes, 15 seconds.

Steer, who finished 29th at 24:24, was much harder on herself.

"When you miss only one shot, you shouldn't be three minutes behind (your competitor)," she said.

Winning the men's sprint was 1998 Olympic gold medalist Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway, who placed first for the second time this week. He missed only one of his 10 targets and finished with a time of 22:40.

Norway's Frode Andresen was second at 22:53.4, just 12 seconds behind, while 1989 Olympic gold medalist Frank Luck of Germany was third at 23:13.5.

Not even the high altitude of Soldier Hollow could slow them down.

"I've done a lot of altitude training," said Luck. "It's no problem for me."

France's Julien Robert, who recorded his first World Cup finish by placing third on Wednesday, didn't do as well Friday, finishing 8th.

"It was a much faster course today, which makes it much more difficult," he said of morning conditions that were bright, windless and cold.

The conditions were just the opposite for the women, who raced in the afternoon when warmer temperatures turned the snow to slush. And then the wind picked up, making the shooting more difficult.

Wind not withstanding, a perfect 10-for-10 shooting landed Germany's Uschi Disl a top finish in 21 minutes, 28 seconds.

Norway's Liv Grete Skjelbreid-Poiree wasn't far behind at 21:35.7 — 17 seconds ahead of third finisher Germany's Andrea Henkel.

Disl, a fast skier but not the best shooter, was pleased with her result.

"I usually think too much during the shooting part of the competition," she said. "Today, I shot excellent."

Sweden's Magdalena Forsberg, the top-ranking woman biathlete, finished seventh, with an 8-for-10 shooting effort. She blamed her subpar performance on the altitude.

Of the 90 or so competitors, only the top 60 finishers of the sprint races qualified to compete in Saturday's pursuit. And the top finishers will have a distinct advantage in the pursuit races because they are positioned to leave the starting gate based on their sprint times. The first one to cross Saturday's finish line wins.

That means Andrea Nahrgang will be the last to leave the starting line Saturday as she placed 60th in Friday's sprint.

On the men's side, the two Americans to compete in the pursuit will be Hakkinen and Jeremy Teela.

Teela's 7-for-10 shooting slowed him down Friday.

"It was a rough start," he said. "I missed two targets off the bat and it rattled me. I just skied hard."

Americans recently placed in the top 10 in World Cup biathlon competitions, and their finish in Friday's races was disappointing. Americans have never won medals in Olympic biathlon competitions.

"Anything that happens here is a learning process," said Jerry Kokesh, a spokesman for the U.S. Biathlon Association. "This will prepare us for next year. We have high hopes."