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Tough going for U.S. in biathlon sprint

WHISTLER, British Columbia — It is somewhere in the athletes' guide to not making excuses. Whenever weather has an impact on an event, the losing side must say, "Both teams had to play in the same conditions."

But that changes when the weather does so as rapidly and as dramatically as it did in the Olympic men's 10-kilometer biathlon sprint on Sunday. The first few competitors skied and fired rifles in a light rain, while the middle of the pack competed in stinging sleet, snow, and poor visibility. The final group had to slog through the muck and hope to qualify for the pursuit event later in the Games.

"That was, by far, the most unfair race I've ever been a part of," said Tim Burke, a pre-Games favorite to become the first American ever to win a biathlon medal. "The people starting in the middle of the pack had no chance today. Unfortunately, I was one of those."

"It was not a fair condition, with the snowstorm that happened right at the start," teammate Jay Hakkinen said. "There was no chance today. ... The first guys had icy conditions, just a complete ice rink out there. Once that snow started coming down, the times dropped off so fast. There was no chance."

Vincent Jay won the gold medal, the first of two won by France at Whistler Olympic Park on Sunday.

After Johnny Spillane won a silver medal in Nordic combined on Sunday, biathlon is now the only winter sport in which the United States has never won a medal of any color.

Burke, the 29th athlete to start, finished 47th after missing three of his 10 targets. Hakkinen, who shot perfectly, finished 54th. Meanwhile, American Jeremy Teela finished ninth after leaving 13th from the starting gate.

"I was really hoping it was going to start snowing really hard, because everybody behind you has no chance," Teela said. "When that does happen and the rain does turn to snow, the sharp crystals slow the track down so much. Everyone has waxed their skis and prepped their skis for rain."

That was the case for Burke, who came into the Olympics as the World Cup leader in biathlon.

"We tested skis and waxed for the conditions we were skiing on this morning, which really wasn't anything like what I ended up racing on," Burke said. "I started getting really cold starting in the second lap. I started when it was pouring rain, and I got soaked right through. I was getting really cold."

To be sure, Burke's reaction to the weather played a part in his results, as well. He knew leaving the starting gate that it would be very difficult to overcome the advantage afforded the biathletes who skied and shot in much better conditions.

But Sweden's Bjorn Ferry, who left three slots ahead of Burke, finished eighth. The 42d athlete to start the race, Austria's Simon Eder, finished 11th overall. Both of them hit all 10 of their targets.

Burke missed one target shooting from the prone position, then missed two while standing.

"That whole second loop, I was skiing through really heavy snow," Burke said. "I came in to shoot and I had snow stuck in my sight. It didn't set me up for a good mind-set.

"Ah, you learn from it. Fortunately in biathlon, you get more than one chance."

Burke's placement in the pursuit event, based on his finish Sunday, probably will keep him from contention. But he can still medal in other events in these Games.

"I want another shot," Burke said. "It wasn't my best performance today. I'm capable of much more, and I want another shot."

Still, it was difficult to accept the way things went in his first event here. It didn't help that, by the time he was talking to reporters a half hour after the race, the sun was shining sweetly on the course.

"This is probably the wildest race, weather-wise, that I've been a part of, as far as changes," Burke said. "It started for those guys rocket-fast. By the end, it was really slow. It's really frustrating."

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