In Oberhof, Germany, this weekend, the U.S. men’s biathlon team placed fifth in the relay, tying the country’s best result in the era of modern biathlon. At World Championships in 2011 the team, largely the same but with Jay Hakkinen in the place of Russell Currier, placed sixth; the season before they had finished sixth in a World Cup relay in Ruhpolding, Germany, and the year before that at the same venue fifth.
“It was a great day and a great return to the World Cup after Christmas break,” Head Coach Per Nilsson said in a USBA press release after the competition. “It was a solid team effort, and good to see our team up there fighting against the best nations throughout the race.”
But what does their success mean, and why do you have to qualify it by referring to the “modern era”? Biathlon has changed a lot in the last 25 years, and relay success is even harder to come by these days than it was before.
“The 1990′s saw lots of changes for biathlon,” United States Biathlon Association President Max Cobb explained. “First gender equity: women were added to the World Championships and World Cups (before the 1990s they competed with the juniors at the World Junior Championships). Second geopolitical: the Soviet Union broke up and gave birth to many strong biathlon nations: Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Kazakhstan to name just a few. The two strong German programs (East & West) were merged.”
Another defining point to the new biathlon was the fact that it became a TV sport – one of the most popular in the winter for Europeans. In an effort to make things more exciting, the pursuit and mass start formats were developed.
There were other changes, too, in venue and organization of the World Cup. And technology.
“Ski service has advanced to an extremely high level unimaginable 20 years ago when athletes largely prepped their own skis the night before each race,” Cobb said.
Cobb wasn’t quite sure how to pinpoint the switch to modern biathlon – unlike the introduction of small bore rifles, which were used at World Championships for the first time in 1978, there’s no definiting cutoff – but a few dates are useful. Germany re-unified in 1990, the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Yugoslavia concluded (more or less) its violent breakup in 1992, and Czechoslovakia split into two nations in 1993. Women competed in biathlon in the Olympics for the first time in Albertville in 1992.
“Pinpointing exactly when these changes all came together is hard but it’s sometime after the 1992 season and before the 1996 World Championships in Ruhpolding,” Cobb wrote in an e-mail. “So I usually look at 1993 or 1994 as the breaking point.”
In terms of performance before and after that point, U.S. racers had it tough either way.
“The great biathletes of the 1980s need to be fully respected for all their success,” Cobb said. “Josh Thompson’s silver medal at the World Champs in 1987 still remains the best ever American finish at the Worlds. Kari Swenson, Anna Sonnerup, and Joan Smith (now Miller) were all on the podium at World Cup races in the 1980 or early 1990s and these were great achievements.”
In one sense, teams were stronger then; the USSR could draw athletes from a vast geographical area and develop them (or burn them out) in a highly organized sport system. And there’s also the specter of doping. While there have been relatively few positive tests in the sport – most have come from Russia in the last decade – former star Frank Luck has admitted that the East German system doped him in the 1980s.
“Given what has come to light about doping in sport generally during this period, it seems likely that these athletes competed on a steeply tilted field, but of course we will never know,” Cobb said.
So individual podiums are tough, any way you slice it. But in terms of relay success, a fifth- or sixth-place finish might actually be more notable now. With the majority of geopolitical changes leading to more teams, not fewer as with the reunification of Germany, the field has grown immeasurably in depth over the last 20 years. It took a while for the former Soviet republics to hit their stride, as they faced challenges in developing infrastructure and funding for their sports teams. (For a great description of this era as well as a glimpse into the Soviet system, revisit Nat Herz’s 2011 piece about the history of Estonian skiing.)
“In the early 1990s there were six strong teams – the Germans, Russians, Norwegians and then French, Italians, Swedes,” Cobb wrote. “If some were not there or had an athlete or two off then anything could happen. Now there are 12 teams that have a reasonable chance, so I think it’s harder now.”
Another factor is that some other European nations didn’t have strong programs. Finland, for instance, has had only sporadic success in biathlon, a sport that is nowhere near as popular in the country as cross-country skiing; comparatively, biathlon is a much bigger deal in neighboring Scandinavia and Russia. The Finns have earned several Olympic medals including two relay silvers from the 1970′s, but as a team have not been so strong in the last few decades.
Nor did Czechoslovakia loom as large in biathlon as it did in skiing, where the country won two relay medals in the 1980′s. Despite success in skiing, Switzerland’s only Olympic medal in biathlon came in 1924.
It’s unclear exactly why biathlon was dominated by the same small group of countries for so long, but one possible explanation is to again look at history. Much of what drives a country’s investment into various sports is Olympic visibility, and biathlon has suffered in that respect. Originally on the winter Olympic schedule as a patrol race in 1924, it was demoded to a demonstration event in 1928, 1936, and 1948. Then it left the Olympics entirely, in part because of anti-military sentiment.
The first World Championships for the sport weren’t held until 1958, where 25 men from seven countries competed. It reappeared at the winter Olympics in 1960; only a single race, a 20 k individual competition, was contested.
How things change. With a burgeoning number of race formats and the inclusion of women, biathlon is among the sports offering the most Olympic medals these days, with ten different races offering 30 medals at the 2010 Olympics, and an additional format, the mixed relay, on tap for Sochi next year.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that more countries are targeting the sport. Biathlon is catching up with skiing in terms of diversity: in Vancouver, 10 different countries won the sport’s 30 medals, including not only the favorites from the 1980′s but also Slovakia, Austria, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Croatia. In skiing, 11 countries won some of the 36 medals available.
And a few former members of the Soviet Union have been particularly successful. In the relays in Oberhof, Ukraine won the women’s race and was fourth in men’s race. In the 1980′s and earlier, these athletes, as well has those from Kazakhstan and Estonia, who both made appearances at near the front early in the men’s relay, and from Belarus, which placed eighth in the women’s relay and tenth in the men’s, would have been fed into the Soviet system.
Four teams were ahead of the U.S. men, but Russia and Ukraine were two of them – a very tangible example of how the depth of the field has changed. But it’s not just the Soviet Union: former countrymen from the Czech Republic and Slovakia finished eighth and ninth in the men’s race, and eleventh and ninth in the women’s.
(Sixth-place Slovenia is the only country from the former Yugoslavia to have developed a successful nordic sports program. Interestingly, while their team is full of very successful athletes, their World Champion Jakov Fak originally hails from Croatia, another part of former Yugoslavia.)
While the same pattern is true to some extent in skiing, teams like Belarus and Ukraine are not currently as strong there, and the sport has always been a bit more diverse. But as biathlon has developed from a strange military competition into a full-fledged, television-ready sport, it has also profited more from the geopolitical changes. Taken together, these factors have made biathlon more exciting than ever before – and harder for teams to consistently win.
“The terrain of the World Cup is very different now,” Cobb said. “All the teams go to all the World Cups with strong teams. With prize money both for individual races and the World Cup overall title, top athletes rarely miss a start. There are simply many more nations with very competitive teams.”