ROSA KHUTOR, Russia, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Martin Fourcade did not seem to be gritting his teeth when he said how pleased he was that Emil Hegle Svendsen had returned to form at the Sochi Olympics.
It was a gracious gesture by the Frenchman because his great Norwegian rival had just denied him a third Olympic gold in a photo-finish to the 15km biathlon mass start on Tuesday.
Svendsen suffered a disappointing start to the Winter Games while Fourcade, the World Cup leader, had won the 20km individual and the 12.5km pursuit gold medals.
“I was a bit surprised he did not react earlier. There is a great rivalry but also a lot of respect, he’s a great champion,” Fourcade told reporters.
“I tried to put myself in his position and I told myself I could not imagine what he was going through.
“He is a superb athlete, he has won everything. It’s nice for him and for the sport that he won because he has been at the top for four years.”
Svendsen, 28, now has three Olympic titles and a silver medal to Fourcade’s two golds and two silvers in a biathlon rivalry mirroring that between Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen and Frenchman Raphael Poiree in the early 2000s.
“It’s with good rivals that you claim your best victories and I was missing him a little. He forced me to raise my level,” said the 25-year-old Fourcade, who is doubtful for Wednesday’s mixed relay because of a bout of sickness.
“I think he won’t be there in four years while I will be. He helps me push my limits so in four years I’ll have a better level.
“He’s not my best friend on the circuit, it’s true that I’m closer to Tarje (Boe),” said the Frenchman.
“It’s our rivalry that makes it hard to be friends. There is a lot of mockery but also a lot of respect between us.”
Asked by a Norwegian reporter if he was not fed up of losing to Svendsen in a photo finish - a scenario that has happened before - Fourcade said: “I think he’s more tired of seeing me win than I’m tired of him beating me in the sprint.
“I’m not going to cry because I was beaten in a sprint by one centimetre by my greatest rival. I’m very happy with my silver medal.” (Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Robert Woodward)