City-Biathlon in Püttlingen

FasterSkierAugust 4, 2007

Saarland state in Southwest Germany has never been known as a haven for winter sports. Still, the world biathlon elite will gather in Püttlingen this summer for the third time, when the 3rd City Biathlon on August 12 attracts many world champions and Olympic medalists. The 1.5 km circular course goes straight through the city center, and the athletes will compete on roller-skis. This event is the only one of its kind in the world: using original small calibre rifles, competitors will shoot at a firing range that will be erected on Püttlingen’s Burgplatz square. Just a few meters away, 3,500 spectators will be cheering for the top stars of the biathlon scene. “The atmosphere is magnificent,” says Ole Einar Björndalen, who has already started twice in Saarland.

Several years ago, the Saarland state government hatched the idea. Inspired by the one-day round of the Tour de France and the inline skating World Cup competition, the government began looking for unusual sports to brand their state as a sports location. At the end of 2003 they began planning the ‘Summer Biathlon’ project. They quickly located a host venue with an enthusiastic city council in the town of Püttlingen, situated 15 km west of Saarbrücken. Soon the Saarland State Minister of Internal Affairs and Sports, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, signed on as the event’s patron. The Saarland Mountaineering and Cross-Country Skiing Association led the sports planning side, and the agency Niedermeier+ Marketing PR Events GmbH from Saarbrücken took charge of project management and realization.

It took almost two years of preparation for roller-skiing and shooting to be held in Püttlingen for the first time. The main problem was obtaining a permit to build a small-caliber shooting range between rows of houses and supermarkets. How to make the construction safe? Bullet-proof glass? Boarded-up shipping containers? Heaped-up mounds of earth? Following endless statistical calculations and rejected options, the event organizers settled upon a scaffolding construction covered with protective plating and reinforced with steel plates. An experienced and innovative scaffold-builder gave them his assurance that the project could and would be completed punctually. But several event organizers and towns had already failed at similar projects in recent years, and the Saarland locals had to fight skepticism from both athletes and functionaries in the biathlon scene. Undaunted, the organizers promoted the summer competition in Püttlingen from the sideline at numerous World Cups, and were finally able to start the project’s realization phase.

The City Biathlon premiere came on June 19, 2005, with elite athletes racing and shooting in front of 10,000 spectators in the stadium and along the course. Michael Greis stayed ahead of Halvard Hanevold and Ole Einar Björndalen, and Kati Wilhelm beat out Sabrina Buchholz and Nathalie Santer. But the event’s organizational baptism-by-fire was more important than the big-name winners. The shooting range with its customized safety design was approved with no objections by the state government, and the organization and the sporting side also went flawlessly. The athletes were enthusiastic about the event, which gave them the opportunity for lots of shooting bouts, direct contact with fans, seeing their biathlete friends for the first time since the World Cup circus, and optimal service with an airport pick-up and partner program.

By the second City Biathlon in August 2006, the event had become more professional. A television unit produced a 90-minute biathlon spot from Püttlingen, which was shown live on EUROSPORT and on delayed broadcast in Norway (on NRK). The starting field featured even more prominent athletes, such as Sven Fischer, Sandrine Bailly, Florence Baverel-Robert and Vincent Defrasne, along with the “regulars”— Greis, Wilhelm, Björndalen, Hanevold and Frode Andresen. Despite the rainy weather, the number of spectators increased to 12,500. The event had made a breakthrough. “City Biathlon is now one of the most important events on Saarland’s sporting calendar, giving our state a worldwide reputation,” says Minister of Internal Affairs and Sports, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

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