Thursday night, the Slovakian town of Osrblie kicked off the 2012 Open European Championships of biathlon with an elaborate ceremony featuring athletes from 32 different countries. On Friday, racers flooded past on the trails and hundreds of shots were fired on the range, by the best field the venue has hosted since its last World Cup in 2005.
What are the Open European Championships? The event, which lasts a week, actually serves several purposes. It’s designed for athletes under the age of 26, which in many ways makes it a championship of biathlon’s second-tier circuit, the IBU Cup. But because this year the races fall on an off-week for the World Cup, several racers from the very top of the biathlon hierarchy will be competing as well, including Valj and Vita Semerenko of Ukraine and Alexey Volkov of Russia, who have stood on the World Cup podium already in their young careers. For the U.S., Russell Currier and Leif Nordgren will be spending their “rest week” racing in Slovakia.
Competitions opened on Friday with junior sprints. The first winner, Norway’s Vetle Sjastad Christiansen, had picked up five individual podium finishes in international competition as a youth, but was surprised to find that moving up an age class brought him his first win – by exactly one second over Alexandr Loginov of Russia.
“Maybe it helped me that nobody was looking at me,” he said in a press conference.
Christiansen’s big challenge was expected to come from fellow Norwegian Johannes Bø, younger brother of last year’s overall World Cup leader Tarjei Bø. But Bø missed four shots and even with one of the fastest ski times over the 10 k course finished over a minute behind Christiansen, who had missed only one shot.
“Normally, Johannes is better than me, but he missed a few too many today,” Christiansen.
He then faced a late challenge by Loginov, who started several bibs earlier and whose split had been 20 seconds back at the last shooting. Loginov said that he started slowly on purpose, and had saved his energy for the last lap; Christiansen, meanwhile, had attacked from the start. As he tired on his final 3.3 k loop, he began hearing the difference to Loginov shrink and shrink.
“I thought I would lose this gold medal, but in the finish I won by one second,” Christiansen said.
The pair will have just over a 30-second lead on third-place Maxim Tsvekov of Russia when they start Sunday’s pursuit.
The lone North American athlete, Casey Smith, missed two shots and finished 31st, 2:46 behind Christiansen. Smith is two-time World Junior Championship competitor as a youth and spent part of last season competing around Europe, so experience isn’t something he’s lacking. But this was his first international race as a junior, and it was a step up.
“I think that the field is fairly comparable to World Juniors,” he told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “Most of the big nations are here, like the Norwegians and the Russians. It feels pretty similar… it is defiantly a high caliber race. It’s pretty cool to be with all of the seniors knowing that some of them are racing on the World Cup.”
Smith’s ski time was not among the fastest, but his shooting times were, something that surprised him.
“For the past week or so I have really been working on my shooting, but not really speed, more mechanics,” he wrote. “Today I didn’t feel like I was shooing fast. I just came in to the range thinking about what I have been working on. After the race I found out… [it] was just a nice side effect of everything else that I have been working on.”
With only six men in the 67-athlete field shooting clean, Smith’s marksmanship was definitely a strong point. His times tied him for tenth-best in the race; he was more than 20 seconds faster than Loginov, for example.
In Sunday’s pursuit, Smith will start about two penalty loops out of the top twenty. And with four, instead of two, shooting stages, he may have a better chance to move up.
The junior women’s 7.5 k sprint saw a fresher face take the win: 18-year-old Niya Dimitrova of Bulgaria. Despite still being a youth, Dimitrova is currently in her third season on the World Cup, where she is her team’s fastest woman. Usually, that doesn’t mean much; her top finish so far has been 46th. On Friday, however, she was afforded a rare chance to compete against her peers, and made the best of it, shooting clean for a 15-second win over Iryna Varvynets of Ukraine. Elisa Gasparin of Switzerland was third.