On the same day their country’s rival political forces signed a deal to end several days of violent clashes, Ukraine won its first gold of the Sochi Games.
The Ukrainians jumped out to an early lead in the women's 4x6-kilometer team relay on Day 14 of the 2014 Winter Games and never looked back.
Olena Pidhrushna, the 2013 world sprint champion, crossed the finish line first to allow her country to claim the top podium spot thanks to a total time of 1:10:02.5. Twin sisters Valj and Vita Semerenko combined with Juliya Dzhyma to dominate the first three legs. Dzhyma took first place early in the second leg, and the team rode the advantage to the podium.
|Women's 4x6km Relay Results|
As Fox Sports points out, the win marks the country's first gold in a biathlon event:
The victory is Ukraine's second medal overall, as Vita Semerenko had previously won bronze in the women's 7.5-kilometer sprint. Semerenko spoke about how important the medal was after that race and stressed that further podium appearances were important for her country, via Erin McClam of NBC News.
“For Ukraine, winning this medal is very important,” Semerenko said after she won her bronze. “It is hopefully not my last one and other girls will follow, too."
Ukraine has been through months of unrest as protestors clashed with President Viktor Yanukovych's government forces. The violence boiled over Thursday with protesters claiming 100 people were killed. Ukraine's Health Ministry said 77 people have died since clashes broke out Tuesday and 577 had been injured.
The violence prompted one Ukrainian Olympian to withdraw from the Games. Skier Bogdana Matsotska backed out of the Games and returned home to show solidarity with the protesters against the President Yanukovych. She was set to compete in the Slalom event today.
"I don't want to participate when in my country people die," Matsotska told The Associated Press, via U.S. News & World Report.
Elsewhere in the biathlon, the host country earned a silver medal with a total time of 1:10:28.9. Russia was a contender through the first two legs thanks to Yana Romanova and Olga Zaitseva, but a sloppy third leg from Ekaterina Shumilova put the team back into third place before Olga Vilukhina—owner of a silver medal in the women's 7.5-kilometer sprint—recaptured second place.
More than 37 seconds off the pace was Norway with a bronze-winning final time of 1:10:40.1. Tiril Eckhoff worked up from eighth to third in the second leg, and Ann Kristin Aafedt Flatland and Tora Berger secured the bronze.
After the first leg, it appeared Italy would be a strong favorite to make the podium. Dorothea Wierer recorded a 16:49.7 time to land in first place, but shooting penalties by Nicole Gontier in the second leg quickly dropped the team into eighth place. Italy wound up a disappointing sixth.
The United States quartet of Susan Dunklee, Hannah Dreissigacker, Sara Studebaker and Annelies Cook can surely be happy with their seventh-place finish—the country's best-ever finish in the event.
The same cannot be said for Germany, a country that typically dominates the event.
Franziska Preuss, Andrea Henkel, Franziska Hildebrand and Laura Dahlmeier combined to finish 11th with a total time of 1:13:44.2, almost four minutes out of first place, marking the first time Germany has ever missed the podium in the event.
For the overall discipline, Friday's exciting race marked the end of the Olympics in Sochi for women biathlon athletes. All that remains is the men's 4x7.5-kilometer relay on February 22.
Much can be taken away from the end result, but chief among them is that Ukraine and Russia remain major contenders for the foreseeable future, while the United States will look to build on its impressive performance and get in the podium conversation. Germany must look to the future and hope to rebound after a humbling finish.