KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Russia made its fans wait for a biathlon gold medal until the last race of the Sochi Games.
Despite missing eight targets, the Russian team won the men's 4x7.5-kilometer relay on Saturday, sending the home nation top of the medal table.
"The whole team has been waiting for this gold medal," said Dmitry Malyshko, who skied the third leg for Russia. "We're really happy we could make this dream come true."
With Russia's men and women having won just one bronze and two silver medals in the previous 10 biathlon events, the country had failed to live up to expectations in one of its signature winter sports.
Alexey Volkov, Yevgeny Ustyugov and Malyshko kept Russia in third position for most of the race before anchor Anton Shipulin beat Germany's Simon Schempp on the final lap.
A sea of Russian flags and loud chants awaited the Russians every time they entered the 7,500-capacity Laura biathlon stadium.
"It's a very special feeling," said Ustyugov, who won a mass start gold in Vancouver four years ago. "With every step you heard the people shouting. It gave me even more energy."
Since 1960, the Soviet Union and Russia have won 19 Olympic gold medals, more than any other nation.
Germany, which only missed two targets, finished 3.5 seconds behind Russia. Austria, with seven reloads, got the bronze, 29.8 seconds back.
The Russians surprisingly left Yevgeny Garanichev out of the team even though he was their only medalist in the men's competition, having won bronze in the individual race.
The move panned out well, though, as his replacement, Volkov, was in third position at the first exchange.
Defending champion Norway led for most of the competition but dropped to fourth after anchor Emil Hegle Svendsen missed three targets in his final shooting. His poor aim denied teammate Ole Einar Bjoerndalen the chance of winning a record ninth career gold medal in the Winter Olympics.
Competing in his last Olympic race, the 40-year-old Bjoerndalen shot flawlessly but still lost 18 seconds of Norway's 20-second lead over Germany in the third leg.
"It was really sad we didn't get a medal today," said Bjoerndalen.
Still, he won two gold medals at Sochi to become the world's most decorated Winter Olympian. "It's better than I thought before the Olympics," Bjoerndalen said.
Shipulin started the final lap 16.6 behind Svendsen and had to reload twice in his prone shooting, but still managed to close the gap with Norway and Germany.
Schempp and Shipulin both shot cleanly and left the shooting range almost simultaneously.
The German stayed in the lead until the final kilometer, when Shipulin overtook him and gradually increased the gap.
"It was a really tough last lap," Schempp said. "I came very quick off the shooting range and was running at maximum speed for the first half but I got tired in the end. Anton made a gap of three, four meters, then I knew it was all over. But silver is a great result."
Germany's success came one day after Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle from the women's biathlon team was kicked out of the Olympics for failing a doping test.
Arnd Peiffer, Germany's third starter, said the atmosphere in the team "was like at a funeral. However, we were able to concentrate on the race. This doping story will last for maybe another three weeks, but our medals will be forever."
Austria won its second biathlon medal of the games.
"My running shape wasn't great today," said Dominik Landertinger, who won silver in the opening 10K sprint two weeks ago. "I had some problems in the last lap. It was too difficult to come close to Anton and Simon."
Martin Fourcade, who won two golds and one silver in the individual races, finished eighth with France, 1:30.5 behind Russia.
"I don't talk about podiums, I talk about fighting," Fourcade said. "There was no fight today for the French today and I'm sad about it. But I'll go back to my room and I will look at what I did at the beginning of the games and I'll be really proud."
The United States was fourth after the opening leg in which Lowell Bailey shot cleanly, but any hope for a first ever Olympic medal in the sport vanished as second starter Russell Currier had to ski three penalty loops after his prone shooting.
The U.S. finished 16th, more than five minutes off the lead.