The biathlon World Cup is coming to northern Maine later this week. The tour will stop Friday in Presque Isle for three days of competition and move to Fort Kent next week for four days of this curious pas de deux of rifle marksmanship and cross country skiing.
Biathlon buffs — believe it or not, there is such a species in southern Maine — know all about this, of course, and have been pining for the world’s best practitioners of the sport to return since they last set waxed ski upon Aroostook snow in March 2004.
For the rest of you, here’s a little primer to get you up to speed. This being biathlon, we’ll naturally use bullets to make our points.
• Let’s start with the word, biathlon. From two Greek roots — bi means two and athlon means contest.
So biathlon combines two seemingly incompatible elements, skiing as fast as you can between bouts of precision target shooting. Try threading a needle after running three miles and you’ll have an idea of the sport’s inherent challenge.
• The sport is very popular in Europe, where television audiences are expected to approach 120 million viewers. A crew of 40 is coming over from Germany to broadcast the Presque Isle and Fort Kent events. Large video screens in each venue will keep spectators abreast of current leaders and standings, lending immediate drama to the proceedings, meaning each shot can elicit collective groans or cheers.
• Although the basic elements are skiing and shooting, biathlon provides a host of variations. Sometimes you shoot on your belly at small targets. Sometimes you shoot while upright at softball-sized targets.
The penalty for a missed shot can be a minute added to your time (individual) or an extra loop of 150 meters to ski (sprint, pursuit). In the case of relays, each competitor has eight bullets to clear five targets, but the extra ammo must be loaded by hand, one at a time. If targets remain standing after eight shots, penalty loops come into play.
• The biathletes coming to Presque Isle and Fort Kent are the best in the world, and both communities are going all out to host their international visitors from two dozen countries. If ever you’ve wondered what the Olympic Games must be like in person, Aroostook County over the next fortnight will offer a fair approximation.
• Speaking of Olympics, biathlon is the only winter discipline in which the United States has never won a medal. Jeremy Teela of Utah placed ninth in Vancouver, and last winter Tim Burke of New York spent a few weeks wearing the yellow bib symbolic of the overall World Cup leader, finishing second twice and third once, but the U.S. has come up empty at the Winter Games.
• Tarjei Boe of Norway is the current World Cup leader. Only 22, he won a gold medal at the 2006 junior world championships that were held in Presque Isle.
• Of the five men and three women scheduled to compete for the home team in Presque Isle and Fort Kent, five are Maine Winter Sports Center alumni, meaning they have trained in Maine and possibly even lived at the Nordic Heritage Center or the 10th Mountain Ski Center.
In addition to Burke and Teela, the familiar five includes Lowell Bailey and Haley Johnson, both of Lake Placid, N.Y., and Laura Spector of Lenox, Mass.
• Russell Currier, a Caribou High grad who grew up in Stockholm, started the winter on the World Cup tour but inconsistent shooting dropped him a level below. His impressive skiing keeps him in the long-range plans of US Biathlon.
• With four-time Olympian Jay Hakkinen of Alaska filling one slot, the newcomer’s position goes to Leif Nordgren of Minnesota. Only 21, Nordgren is enjoying a breakthrough season that started with a 35th-place finish in the opening event in Sweden. He’s ranked 87th in the world.
• Burke at 37th and Bailey at 44th are the highest-rated U.S. men, but Bailey has been coming on strong, finishing 12th in a sprint race in Italy earlier this month and tagging off in second place in a relay. No American ever has won a World Cup race in biathlon.
• These will be the seventh and eighth of nine stops on the World Cup tour. After Fort Kent, the world championships will be held 10 time zones away in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, in March before the Cup season concludes in Norway.
• Burke, Teela and Hakkinen competed in Fort Kent seven years ago, the last (and only other) time the World Cup touched down in Maine. The women’s team completely turned over. Spector (39th) and Sara Studebaker (45th) of Idaho are both ranked among the top 50 in the world.
• Spector remains a student at Dartmouth College, and even took a biology exam during a World Cup event in December after her professor e-mailed it to a colleague at a Swedish university, where it was administered.
• Burke has been dating a two-time gold medalist from German, Andrea Henkel, for more than a year. Henkel, ranked third in the world, is expected at a press conference Monday in Portland with Burke and the rest of the American team.
• The Presque Isle competition features a mixed relay — two women and two men — on Saturday.
The International Olympic Committee will decide at the end of the season whether to add this event to the Sochi Games of 2014.
• Depending on weather conditions, organizers expect roughly 35,000 spectators over the seven days of competition. Ticket prices top out at $5 for adults.
At the Vancouver Games, prices were $25 along the course and $50 in the stadium.
• Approximately 150 competitors required rifle permits from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to bring their guns through customs.
• Biathlon’s economic impact on Aroostook County (population: 72,000) for the next two weeks is estimated to be on the order of $10 million.
• The Southern Maine Biathlon Club is becoming more popular — and competitive — each year.
If you’re filling out your 2022 U.S. Olympic biathlon team scorecard well in advance, you should note the results from a recent NorAm event in Quebec, where an eighth-grader, Carter Hall of Yarmouth, won a junior boys’ 4k sprint and 6k pursuit, hitting 19 of 20 targets in the process.
“That’s good shooting at any level,” said Max Cobb, the head of USA Biathlon, whose headquarters are at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester.
• Opening ceremonies at the University of Maine at Presque Isle are scheduled for Thursday night. Downtown Fort Kent will include a pavilion and ice castle. Local schoolchildren, as part of their curriculum, have been studying foreign athletes and their countries.
More than 1,200 kids are expected for Friday’s races in Presque Isle.
“The opportunity to have 24 different countries come to Aroostook County doesn’t happen every day,” Cobb said. “It’s so cool to see that kind of tie-in from both a social and a cultural standpoint.”
Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: