FORT KENT – If there was one grumble, one minor complaint from the athletes who competed at the 10th Mountain Ski Center seven years ago in the first World Cup biathlon in Maine, it concerned the trails.

They were too gentle.

“I’m sure they won’t be complaining about that now,” said Tim Burke, the former Maine Winter Sports Center athlete who rose to become the top-ranked biathlete in the world for a brief time last winter.

Burke will be one of the five U.S. men racing in the first of four days of competition today, a 10-kilometer sprint involving two stops at the shooting range. First they will shoot from prone position, then standing.

Each of the three times they leave the stadium, competitors will encounter a steep incline that wasn’t part of the course in the 2004 World Cup.

“It’s a wall,” Burke said. “It’s easily the biggest climb on any World Cup course.”

Burke grinned at the prospect. He’s still taking antibiotics to combat the virus that knocked him out of last weekend’s races in Presque Isle, so he knows a top finish today isn’t in the cards. Tuesday marked his first serious training day in two weeks.

“I’ll do the best I can,” he said Wednesday night from a dining room crowded with biathletes on the University of Maine at Fort Kent campus, “but I’m not expecting to feel too fit.”

Having grown up in Paul Smiths, N.Y., Burke has seven family members visiting. He lived and trained in Fort Kent before making it big on the world stage, so this is something of a homecoming for him, but it’s also the first time in four years he’s been back in Fort Kent.

Unlike in Presque Isle, where the Nordic Heritage Center sits atop a knoll and offers scenic vistas at the expense of frequent winds, the stadium in Fort Kent is nestled between two berms and protected by trees.

“Less wind means there’s going to be more fair conditions,” said Russell Currier, whose home in Stockholm lies roughly halfway between the two biathlon centers of Aroostook County.

Currier started the season on the World Cup tour but didn’t shoot well enough to stay on it. He’s an alternate in Fort Kent and trying not to dwell on the missed opportunity of competing so close to home.

“It’s frustrating but that’s how the sport works,” he said after dining early, before most of the biathletes arrived for dinner under a ceiling festooned with flags from 19 countries.

Next week he leaves for Italy, where the world championships for biathletes under the age of 26 will be held.

Seventy-four men are scheduled to race today, leaving at intervals of 30 seconds. Jay Hakkinen, an Alaska native who makes his home in Germany, will go off fifth. The rest of the U.S. order is Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid (18th), Leif Nordgren of Minnesota (51st), Burke (57th) and Jeremy Teela of Utah (64th).

A 7.5-kilometer women’s sprint is scheduled for Friday. Both races begin at 11:30 a.m.

Five years ago at the junior world championships in Presque Isle, former NFL running back Herschel Walker showed up and tried his hand at the shooting portion of biathlon. On Friday night, NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen is scheduled to arrive in Fort Kent. Pippen is coming at the invitation of Sergey Kushchenko, the Russian vice president of the International Biathlon Union.

The president of the Russian Biathlon Union is Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets. In Russia, Prokhorov was the owner and Kushchenko the chief executive of Moscow’s dominant CSKA basketball club.

Andy Shepard, president of the Maine Winter Sports Center, said Pippen will go for a snowmobile ride Saturday and be on hand for the parade of lights from New Brunswick to Fort Kent on Saturday night.

Also expected Friday night is Gov. Paul LePage, who received 41.8 percent of the Aroostook County vote in the November gubernatorial election.

The vote in Fort Kent split almost perfectly between LePage (492), Libby Mitchell (490) and Eliot Cutler (467).

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

[email protected]