PRESQUE ISLE — Biathlon is by far the most popular winter sport in Europe, with huge crowds filling stadiums and more than 500 million television viewers each season.
Germany broadcasts the sport over its public channels and averages 3.5 million viewers each race.
In the United States, however, biathlon is not a mainstream winter sport. It gets a bump in exposure every four years during the Olympics, when NBC and writers across the nation discover its charm.
The folks in Presque Isle are hoping to ride that bump a little longer.
The Nordic Heritage Ski Center will be the site for the IBU Biathlon Youth/Junior World Championships for the next eight days. More than 300 of the best young biathletes from 29 nations will compete for gold, silver and bronze medals.
“This is a great chance to promote the sport in the U.S.,’’ said Sean Doherty, a member of the U.S. Olympic team who is competing in the youth division (ages 17-18). Doherty, 18, from North Conway, N.H., won a gold and two silvers in last year’s youth/junior worlds.
“I know a lot of friends and family of mine are coming to watch the races,’’ he said. “It’s a chance for biathlon to be in the news more in the states, to build some publicity.
“It will give people a chance to see how cool the sport is.”
Max Cobb, the president and CEO of U.S. Biathlon, said American journalists covering the Winter Olympics told him they never knew how exciting the sport was. “It’s great to be able to ride that wave of enthusiasm into the juniors,’’ he said. “I think coming on the heels of the Olympics, where more Americans were able to see the biathlon than ever before, should help grow the interest in the sport.’’
Kamran Husain, a Fort Kent High sophomore who trains at the Maine Winter Sports Center, said he hopes having this event at home will inspire other youngsters to take up the sport.
“Maybe a lot of kids will come and realize this is a possibility, that it’s not just soccer and baseball that they can play,’’ he said. “This is a sport, too. And it can be fun.’’
This is the second time the world junior championships are being held in Maine, the last in 2006.
The weather is expected to be extremely cold and windy for Friday’s opening races, which could impact the crowd. But Seth Hubbard, the biathlon coach at the Maine Winter Sports Center, said events like this are huge for the area.
“Any time an event of this size comes to the area, it touches a lot of people from a lot of different areas in the communities,’’ he said. “There is obviously a great deal of pride in the athletes who have either grown up in the area or gotten a start in the sport locally, or the athletes who seek out this area to come and train. There is a great deal of pride in the volunteers.
“And from a financial standpoint, this is a great event. Any time this much business comes in for two weeks, for over two weeks actually, it makes a great difference to the communities.’’
Andy Shepard, the president and CEO of the Maine Winter Sports Center, said events like this allow the residents of Aroostook County to show off a bit.
“This is a tremendous source of pride for them,’’ he said. “This is a chance for the people of Aroostook County to show the quality of their hospitality, the warmth of their hospitality, and also their proficiency and efficiency. There is no better organizing committee in the world than the ones in Presque Isle and Fort Kent.
“They put their hearts and souls into it.’’
Hubbard said interest in the biathlon traditionally peaks after every Olympics. He’ll receive calls and emails from people across the country, asking what opportunities exist to train. This year, with the youth/junior worlds coming on the heels of the Olympics, he said “it will be interesting to see if there is a more significant response than in the past.’’
He’s hoping that the U.S. team puts on a good showing.
Doherty, who competed in the Olympic relay, will likely be the favorite in any of his races. Anna Kubek of Duluth, Minn., should also be a strong contender in the youth division.
The teams from Ukraine and China pulled out of the championships. Race officials were told that the Ukraine team was unable to attend because of the political unrest there.
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: