When FasterSkier last wrote about the Russian biathlon federation (RBU) it was in a state of crisis. In the middle of the women’s relay, the culminating event at 2011 World Championships in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, RBU President Mikhail Prokhorov had fired Anatoly Khovantsev, the coach of the women’s team. As soon as the race was over, star athlete Olga Zaitseva abruptly announced her retirement.
Since the fiasco in March, the federation has started to rebuild. While it has not named all of its teams for next year, it has introduced a new coaching staff and structure, in which both the men and women are split into A and B teams.
The women’s team in particular is the subject of intense speculation. The women had a very disappointing World Championships, with superstars Zaitseva and Svetlana Sleptsova failing to win a single medal and the team racing to a worst-ever relay result. Zaitseva is rumored to be considering a return to the team, but nothing has been finalized.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether the new coach of the women’s team, Wolfgang Pichler, will fit in and find success. A German who has worked for the Swedes for the past sixteen years, Pichler is undeniably one of the best coaches in the world. But Russia is unlike any other place, and Pichler – who in the past has angrily denounced what he perceived as systematic doping by the Russians – doesn’t even speak the language.
So why would he make the move?
“I have sixteen years of coaching with the Swedish national team, and I wanted a change,” Pichler said simply in an interview with Russian news site Sport-Express.
Abrupt Departure from Sweden
Pichler’s name has become synonymous with Swedish triumph on the trails. He coached Magdalena Forsberg to six World Championships gold medals and 42 World Cup victories, the most of any woman in the history of the sport. After her retirement in 2002, he was offered the head coaching position in Sweden.
“When I started, there was no base as far as biathlon was concerned,” Pichler said in a 2009 interview with Biathlon-Online.de. “But then a talent like Magdalena Forsberg appears, and no one could have expected that… she was simply a perfect biathlete. She had it all: she united the perfect shooter with a perfect cross-country skier. You find something like this once in a lifetime.”
Although Sweden has a strong cross-country skiing tradition, many people didn’t see a strong future for the country in biathlon after Forsberg’s retirement. They were wrong.
Under Pichler’s tutelage, Anna Carin Zidek (then Oloffson) won gold and silver at the Torino Olympics. Then in 2007, the team of Zidek, Helena Ekholm (then Jonsson), Bjorn Ferry, and Carl Johan Bergman captured World Championships gold in the mixed relay. Ekholm also won the overall World Cup in 2009.
In 2010, the Swedish team restructured, and Pichler was left in charge of only the women while Jonas Johansson took over the men. From its humble pre-Forsberg beginnings, the Swedish team had grown; the new structure reflected that change.
“I have worked close together with Wolfgang for many years,” 2010 Olympic gold medalist Bjorn Ferry told live-wintersport.com midway through his first season without the enigmatic coach. “It’s exciting to test something new. It was the right time for that.”
Soon, it was time for Pichler to test something new himself. On April 27th, he backed out of his contract with the Swedes, which ran through 2014, and signed a new contract to head the Russian women’s team for the next three years instead.
The timing was unfortunate as far as Sweden was concerned. With the training season about to start, they named Johan Hagström, their IBU Cup coach, as an interim replacement until they fill the head coach position. Since then training has begun, and the women are following plans drawn up by Pichler.
“It would have been much more of a shock five years ago, back then Wolfgang was biathlon in Sweden,” said Swedish Biathlon’s Information and Communication Director Patrik Jemteborn. “Of course it still is a big loss because he is a great coach, but now we have people who can absorb this to some degree. We will still be friends, with Wolfgang and with the Russians. There are no hard feelings.”
Many of the athletes conveyed a similar feeling to the public.
“It was a little bit of chaos now at the beginning because Wolfgang left so suddenly, but I am sure everything will work out fine,” Ekholm told IBU News.
Privately, however, Ekholm is said to be upset with how Pichler managed his departure from the team. And Zidek, who is in the process of deciding whether to continue her career as a racer, noted her frustration on her blog.
“I am perhaps a bit disappointed in how he handled the whole thing,” she wrote. “I had not heard anything about this until I heard it on the radio… especially after he was so disappointed in how he was treated by the men last year. It feels a bit like he did the same thing himself to us women.”
When the Russian sports site Championnat asked Pichler about whether he had discussed his departure with the Swedish team, he didn’t seem bothered.
“I was talking about retiring from the Swedish biathlon team,” he said. “In particular, I spoke about it with Anna-Maria Nilsson, who was the team captain. Apparently, Helena just didn’t know about it.”
Even Zidek, though, said she could see why Pichler would take the Russian job, as did many others in the biathlon world.
“I kind of understand,” U.S. Head Coach and native Swede Per Nilsson told FasterSkier in an interview last week. “Pichler, because he’s had big success in Sweden and many years… maybe it was time for him to move.”
Past Animosity with Russia
While the challenge of coaching a supremely talented yet frustratingly inconsistent group of women may be appealing to Pichler, the move to Russia is puzzling given his past relationship with the RBU.
For several years, Pichler – who is outspoken on many issues – very publicly accused the Russians of having a systematic doping program, and proposed severe measures to keep them in line. In 2008, he spoke as the representative of the national team coaches on the World Cup circuit.
“We have seen examples of suspended athletes coming back after two years’ suspension, pretending nothing has happened,” he told the International Sports Press Association on that occasion. “Or where their national team just presents new athletes that fill the positions. The rules are not strict enough and something better has to be done. Therefore we ask on behalf of the trainers and athletes, that nations which obviously are not afraid of cheating, must be punished.”
He proposed that if any nation had two or more doping cases in a two year period, the entire team should be suspended. At the time, the Russians and Austrians – who had a major scandal at the Torino Olympics – were the only teams such a rule would have affected.
Since then, the Austrians have cleaned up their act, but the Russians have not. In 2009, three Russian athletes – Albina Akhatova, Ekaterina Iourieva, and Dimitri Yaroshenko, all world champions – tested positive for EPO at World Cup races in Östersund, Sweden, prompting Pichler to speak again.
“We should keep the entire Russian team out of the World Championships and next year’s Olympics,” he told Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. “I have always suspected that they were doing something. Three in the same race? It cannot be anything but systematic, and it has been going on for years. I think the whole team takes drugs.”
While Pichler worried that doping was a blow to the sport and that biathlon would lose the respect and interest of its fans, he also took the doping offenses personally.
“’I am quite sure that we have lost medals because they were doped,” he said in the Aftonbladet interview. “They were ahead of us in the mixed relay at the World Championships last year, for example. At the  Olympics they were the second and we were fourth in the men’s relay. I can’t imagine that they were clean then either.”
Hit outspoken attitude rubbed off on his athletes; Ferry was widely quoted at the Vancouver Olympics as saying that dopers should get the death penalty, “or at least a lot of kicks in the balls.”
In 2009, Ferry and teammate Mattias Nilsson received death threats via e-mail from Russian IP addresses. In that case, Pichler defended his athletes and called on Russia and the IBU to protect the Swedish team at the season-ending World Cups.
“If the IBU does not ensure our safety, we will not be able to go to Russia to compete. We have several athletes who have a chance to win the World Cup, but security is paramount,” Pichler told German news channel ZDF.
Later that week, he claimed that a member of the Russian team staff attacked him in the VIP tent at a race.
“[Pichler] has always been against our team for some reason,” RBU Press Attaché Dmitry Loyev told Russian news channel RT at the time.
Integrating Into The Culture
These days, the attitude toward the German could not be more different.
“Today we rely on the experience of a world-class coach who has achieved huge success on the international level,” Prokhorov, the IBU President, told the International Biathlon Union in introducing the new coaching staff. “We have a huge desire to win, that’s why we’re making these changes. We want the best specialists to work for Russian biathlon and we will not back out of this strategy.”
And Pichler has warmed to his new colleagues as well.
“Russia isn’t a bad nation and I think the new leadership is a good one to cooperate with,” he told the IBU. “The team has huge potential, but of course we have to work hard.”
One of the things that the women had complained about in Khovantsev, last year’s coach, was that they did not work hard enough. They are definitely in for a change with Pichler, who has a reputation as a task-master.
“Now the Russians find out what training is,” Zidek wrote on her blog. “There are no shortcuts allowed.”
Pichler himself told Russian sports site Championnat that not all of the Russian women would be able to keep up with the training he had planned for them. He also spoke of making adjustments in the women’s diets, saying that weight loss would be a large goal of his program.
The German has said that he is too old to learn Russian, and will communicate with athletes through a translator. He coached the Swedes primarily from his home in Ruhpolding, so communication barriers obviously don’t intimidate Pichler, but it will be an added difficulty as he integrates himself into the culture of the program.
To ease the transition and attempt to smooth over any past animosity, Pichler has backpedaled on his doping comments, saying only that there will be no doping in his program.
“I will do everything to fight against doping,” he told Championnat. “It’s a disaster, when the athletes use illicit drugs. It poisons the sport. We will fight for medals only the honest way. When people see that we work hard and have good results, then they will treat us accordingly.”
Many of the athletes he is now coaching were part of the Russian teams which he indicted in his statements in 2008 and 2009, but only one of the banned athletes was hoping to work with Pichler this season. Iourieva returned to competition partway through the 2010-2011 season after serving her two-year suspension; she competed in the two World Cup weekends in northern Maine, where her best finish was 22nd place.
For Pichler, that wasn’t good enough, and he didn’t name her to the national team A squad.
“Everybody has made mistakes in their lives, and I am no exception,” he told sports.ru. “Iourieva has already served her punishment. My personal attitude to her doesn’t matter now… Have you seen her results this year? In my opinion, they are not good enough to speak about the national team. In any case, the road to the team is not closed for anybody.”
This was a sentiment he conveyed again in again in numerous interviews: Pichler will work with anyone, young or old, doped or not, famous or unknown, to try to make the Russians the best team in the world.
“Russia is not so bad, you have a lot of good biathletes,” Pichler told Sport-Express. “We will try as quickly as possible to create a strong team. And we must always give chance to young talents. For sure we will work with a wide range of people. The most important thing is to send to the start line at the Olympic Games in Sochi, the best team.”