By Julien Pretot
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Russia won their first biathlon gold medal of the Sochi Olympic Winter Games on Saturday, taking out the men's relay after the hot favorites Norway faltered.
Germany took the silver medal after Simon Schempp could not keep up with Russia's Anton Shipulin in the home straight. Austria claimed the bronze with Norway fourth.
"I tried to do my best and the German team have given us a present," said Shipulin, whose sister Anastasiya Kuzmina won gold in the sprint event for Slovakia.
"I want to thank them and to thank my team as well because everyone did their best in the team."
Norway seemed to be in control at the halfway mark but dropped back after multiple medalist Ole Einar Bjoerndalen lost time on the skis and Emil Hegle Svendsen faltered at the final shooting stage.
"Svendsen is a great champion but he could not control his nerves," said Shipulin.
Norway won the gold medal in the event at the last Olympics in Vancouver and at each of the last four world championships.
Although the silver medal provided some reassurance for a German camp still reeling after their team mate Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle failed a doping test, the near miss also marked the first time since 1976 that Germany failed to land a biathlon gold.
France, another of the pre-race favorites, finished eighth after Martin Fourcade did the final leg despite suffering from rhinitis and sinusitis.
There was some gamesmanship shortly before the start when Svendsen approached Fourcade, whose participation had been in doubt.
"Are you ok ?," the Norwegian said.
"Hmmm... not so good," Fourcade replied.
It turned out that neither man was at his best.
Fourcade could not make up for lost ground when he started the last leg while Svendsen, in a leading pack of four at the final standing shoot, missed four targets.
He reloaded his maximum three times and then had to complete a 150-metre penalty loop.
Norway had built a 20-second advantage thanks to the Boe brothers, Tarjei and Johannes Thingnes, but Bjoerndalen, who was gunning for an unprecedented ninth Winter Olympics gold medal, lost huge ground despite shooting clean.
Svendsen was strong on the skis but could not sustain the pressure at the final shoot.
"It's a disappointment for sure but I was not so well this morning, I was empty," said Bjoerndalen at his sixth and final Olympics.
Russia's win also helped shifted the focus from off-course drama after biathlete Ekaterina Glazyrina was expelled from the Olympics and the rest of the World Cup season following critical comments she made about her team on social media.
(Editing by Mitch Phillips)