Whistler, British Columbia – The first Nordic medal event of the 2010 Olympic Games kicks off at 1:00PM local time. The women’s 7.5km biathlon sprint features 89 starters, with a maximum of four from any one nation.
The US with four women at the Olympics will start a full contingent, Laura Spector, Haley Johnson, Sara Studebaker, and Lanny Barnes. The Canadians will also start four – Rosanna Crawford, Zina Kocher, Megan Imrie and Megan Tandy. Both teams are young and relatively inexperienced – at least from an Olympic standpoint. Only Barnes and Ko21cher have raced at the Olympics before, both in 2006.
The US squad is here mainly for experience, and medals are not a realistic goal. “For the women, it is mainly about experience,” said US head coach Per Nilsson. “We are looking ahead to 2014 for medals.”
The Canadians have a better chance at a top result with Kocher, who has stood on the World Cup podium. As is often the case in biathlon, Kocher’s results have been all over the map in recent seasons, but she has the shown the ability to skin in the top-15 on a good day. Chances for a medal, however, are slim, especially given the depth of the women’s field.
The biathlon sprint format is unrelated to the cross-country sprint, and pre-dates the heat-based xc format by many years. The term sprint is appropriate in that it refers to the shortest biathlon format – in this case 7.5km for the women and 10km for the men. Athletes will shoot only twice – once prone and once standing – with a 2.5km ski loop in between. For every target missed a 150 meter penalty loop is skied. As usual, good shooting is key, and it will be a challenge to have a shot at the podium with more than one miss.
One woman who has done just that is Magdalena Neuner (GER). Neuner is one of four German medal favorites competing. She has been regularly posting the fastest ski times by a significant margin on the World Cup, but has been held back by poor shooting. In January, she showed signs of rounding into form, with improved shooting and several podium finishes. Only 23, she enters the race as one of the top skiers to watch.
It is not at all out of the question that the Germans could sweep the podium. Neuner is joined on the start list by Kati Wilhelm, a three-time gold medalist, Andrea Henkel, with two golds under her belt, and Simone Hauswald, the 2009 silver medalist at the World Championships.
Henkel, Hauswald, Wilhelm, and Neuner currently hold places 2,3,4 and 6 in the overall World Cup standings.
Their main competition – other than each other, will come from Helena Jonsson (SWE), the overall World Cup leader. Jonsson has won three World Cup races this year, and has been second in three more. She also won the overall World Cup title last year and the gold in the pursuit at the 2009 World Championships. This is her first Olympics.
Jonsson is the clear favorite, and her consistency has been very impressive this season.
One factor that adds to the already challenging sport is the weather. It is currently raining in Whistler, and a combination of snow and rain, potentially heavy at times, is predicted for this afternoon. This could make shooting extremely difficult and result in some surprising performances.
Gold: Helena Jonsson (SWE)
Silver: Magdalena Neuner (GER)
Bronze: Olga Medvedtseva (RUS)
Top Canadian: Zina Kocher 17th
Top American: Haley Johnson 34th
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.