January 30, 2011

Biathlon: Curious combination of disciplines

Not sure about biathlon and the event coming to Maine? Here's a primer -- and all you need to know.

By Glenn Jordan gjordan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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And off they go, thrilling a crowd at the start of a World Cup race. The event in Aroostook County is expected to draw 35,000 spectators over seven days. The television audience in Europe is expected to reach 120 million. The most-watched U.S. show ever drew 106.5 million.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Sometimes you shoot from your stomach and other times ... well, no matter what, don't miss if you expect to be a World Cup champ.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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An event in the biathlon World Cup draws fans from around the world, cheering the competitors from their country. Americans will have plenty of support from Maine fans.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Tarjei Boe
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Tarjei Boe of Norway is the World Cup leader and no stranger to Aroostook County. He was a hit in Presque Isle five years ago when, as a 17-year-old, he captured the junior world championships. He’ll be looking to pad his World Cup standings lead on his return to Maine.

The Associated Press

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