Will Biathlon Mixed Relay Create Opportunity For U.S. Olympic Medal?

Chelsea LittleNovember 9, 2010

For the nordic world, the highest profile issue on the agenda at the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) recent executive board meeting in late October was the inclusion of women’s ski jumping in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. But besides other events like the figure skating team event and a luge relay (FasterSkier isn’t sure how that works, but we want to see a hand-tag halfway down the luge track…), the IOC board also looked “favorably” towards the inclusion of a mixed relay in the biathlon schedule.

The final decision won’t be made until after this year’s World Championships in Khanty Mansiysk, but biathletes are generally excited about the ruling. American veteran Lanny Barnes said that “it would be awesome if they incorporated the mixed relay into the Olympics. It’s a fun race!”

The addition of a two-man, two-woman relay was suggested by the International Biathlon Union (IBU) and analyzed by the IOC according to criteria that evaluate the potential for increasing gender equity, youth appeal, and “universality.”

According to Lowell Bailey, a U.S. Biathlon Team veteran, the mixed relay would add excitement to the Games, as well as giving some smaller nations a chance for glory.

“The mixed relay is an interesting race, because there can be even more unexpected lead changes up to the very end,” he said. “When you mix the male and female talent from one nation, you often end up with a much different result than if just one of the teams was racing in a traditional relay format.

“A good example of this was when Sweden won the mixed relay at 2007 World Championships in Antholz, Italy. Neither the men nor the women have won a relay on their own, yet when they took the top two men and women out of their team, they took the gold,” he said.

Olympian Laura Spector was also enthusiastic – and she also pointed out that a mixed relay created opportunities for men’s and women’s teams, which often train separately, to work together.

“[There’s] some amount of strategy involved in choosing the teams, because countries often try to save their top athletes for the normal relay,” she said. “But it is a very competitive event, regardless.”

As Spector said, depending on where the mixed relay was situated in the schedule, many superstars might bow out to save themselves for the five other races already on the schedule. But that was pretty much the only negative aspect cited by the athletes interviewed by FasterSkier.

U.S. Biathlon Head Coach Per Nilsson was also enthusiastic about the event’s inclusion.

“For the U.S. team, it would be a chance to create a pretty strong team for the future,” he said. “I think it’s another chance, especially for the ‘medium’-good teams, to find two good athletes of each gender. That has been the case in the mixed relays in the past – that outside the big nations (Germany, Russia, Norway, France, etc.), you have had more nations that can be fighting for the podium.”

Bailey agreed, going even farther with his prediction of potential American results. “I think the mixed relay format does present an interesting opportunity for the United States, as a ‘smaller’ biathlon nation, to sneak into one of the podium spots,” he said.

Nilsson, for one, would go a step farther, in a bid to increase fan appeal.

“I would like to see that the mixed format, in the future, goes more towards a cross-country team sprint format – for example, six legs of 1.5 kilometers, with shooting and shorter penalty loops,” he said. “That would be interesting for the spectators – a format that is a little different.”

What will happen in April? The IOC board has empowered the IOC President to make the final decision, so it’s all up to Jacques Rogge now.

Chelsea Little

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