The world’s best skiers are getting the experience of a lifetime in Oslo, competing in skiing’s ancestral homeland and getting cheered by a hundred thousand fans.
The world’s best biathletes? They’re having a cultural experience too – in Siberia.
World Championships are currently being held in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, a town of 70,000 inhabitants situated almost 2,000 miles east of St. Petersburg. The International Biathlon Union charters flights from Oslo and Munich to transport athletes and service members because the local airport is only served by two airlines and travel is difficult.
Before leaving the U.S., Annelies Cook said that she thought the trip would be “quite an adventure”, and she turned out to be right.
“Khanty-Mansiysk is a pretty interesting place,” her teammate Sara Studebaker told FasterSkier on Thursday. “It’s definitely unlike any other World Cup venue.”
The village originally dates from at least the seventeenth century, when the Russians attacked the native khan (leader) and took over Khanty. The town’s modern era began in 1930, when it was established as an administrative center and re-named. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, the region’s oil wealth has poured into Khanty-Mansiysk, and in the last several years there has been much more development. A 900-foot skyscraper is even being built downtown. But the region hasn’t forgotten its past, and an estimated 12,000 people still speak the native Khanty language, which is most closely related to Hungarian.
“The town itself has these crazy landmarks of buildings, churches with gold roofs and arches,” said Canadian biathlete Scott Perras. “Then across the street are houses with fences patched together with tin and houses looking ready to fall down. I wish I could go in these houses to see was they traditionally look like inside.”
Even though it isn’t easy to get to, plenty of fans hit up the races in Khanty-Mansiysk. In 2007, it was estimated that 65,000 tourists attended the World Cup finals, almost doubling the population of the city. So far this year, however, the stands have not been packed; it was estimated that only 5,000 people attended the sprint races on Saturday.
“I expected like 20,000 people since the Russian fans are so passionate,” top Norwegian biathlete Tarjei Boe told IBU News. “I am not sure what the problem is but I want big crowds cheering. It helps us and the Russian athletes. Maybe the organizers should give away some free tickets.”
Unlike in Oslo, where the Holmenkollen spectators cheer for every athlete as if they are winning, the Khanty fans are fickle – so Boe might change his mind if the crowd gets bigger and rowdier.
“They don’t have the same attitude that the fans in Maine had,” Perras explained. “They often cheer only for Russia and can even cheer when some of the top Norwegians miss. But for me personally today was the most cheering I have had from the fans in Russia, I think they like the look of pain on a face.”
U.S. biathlete Leif Nordgren wasn’t impressed, and focused more on the races than the spectators.
“I haven’t actually paid to much attention to the fans,” he said. “I have no idea how many showed up for the races yesterday. I know there are a lot and they go crazy for the Russians.”
The other defining characteristic of the Khanty-Mansiysk venue is of course the cold. The average temperature over the course of a year is -1.1 degrees Celsius. While temperatures as low as -49 Celsius have been recorded, the average low in March is “only” -14. While racing, the majority of athletes cover their faces with protective tape, and the service technicians have to adjust perfectly to the cold, dry snow.
It doesn’t stop the fans, though: 5,000 people attended the opening ceremonies, even though it was -20 Celsius. Apparently the laser light show, dancers, traditional costumes, and reindeer were a big enough draw to outweigh the cold.
“The venue is great- because of the cold it always allows for fair conditions to all of the competitors,” Perras said, taking the extreme conditions as a positive rather than a negative.
He elaborated a bit more on the challenges of the course and stadium.
“The course has a flatter profile but is very tough because the downhills are pretty gentle and you must work all of the time,” Perras said. “The range is tricky as seen today by everyone that watched the [sprint]- it comes right after the largest climb on the course and then you have to have the ability to fight the wind despite still trying to recover from the climb.”
While it remains to be seen how the course profile works for the U.S. and Canadian biathletes, at least a few of the world’s best find it ideal. After winning the men’s sprint, Germany’s Arnd Pfeiffer told IBU News that the trails suited him.
“I like the tracks here; they do not have such high climbs,” he said. “I can do a lot of 1/1 technique and I like that. I feel very good here. Every time I come here, I have a good feeling and that helps.”
Studebaker said that the U.S. team had spent time adjusting to their unusual circumstances.
“There’s a huge military presence, which is extremely strange for us,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Lots of security checks and specific protocol for our rifles and ammo. You definitely have to change up your normal routine a bit to fit in with all the extra stuff, but it’s working out well for us so far… We haven’t ventured too far in to town, but so far have had only good interactions with the people here.”
One last challenge: the food, which Nordgren described as “not so awesome”.
“The food is different,” Perras said. “Everything is layered in butter or lard- sometimes the pastries are the healthiest choice.”