RUHPOLDING, GERMANY – After a raucous opening ceremony in downtown Ruhpolding last night that featured speaches, music, and fireworks, biathlon World Championships will finally get underway in about an hour and a half here at the Chiemgau Arena in Germany.
The opening event is a mixed relay, with women skiing six kilometers and men seven; each leg will feature one prone and one standing shooting stage. The French are the top seed, starting stars Marie Laure Brunet, Marie Dorin Habert, and Simon and Martin Fourcade. The Russians have bib number two and Ukraine will be racing as the third seed.
The Germans are seeded fourth, but it’s hard to imagine that they won’t be racing at the front, buoyed by a huge hometown crowd. All four members of their team – Andrea Henkel, Magdalena Neuner, Andreas Birnbacher, and Arnd Peiffer – have won World Cups so far this season.
Even though it’s a Thursday, the venue is packed already; the events thousands of tickets have sold out and the stadium is full. Fans dressed in their country’s colors are cheering in support of their teams, spurred on by pre-race commentary and entertainment on the arena’s video screen.
With temperatures nearing 50 degrees, officials decided to salt the course mid-morning to make it faster. They say that they’d had success with this strategy at the Vancouver Olympics, which gave them confidence that it would improve conditions for the racers this week.
“Today at 11:30 we treated the courses with salt,” officials told the press in an impromptu conference. “At the moment the course is in very good condition, but with sunny places on the course it can still become very soft. It’s sodium and chloride and when you put it on the snow, it dissolves into a little bit of water. This process requires energy, so it makes it colder and freezes the salt together.”
The U.S. will be starting Sara Studebaker, Susan Dunklee, Tim Burke, and Lowell Bailey, and are seeded ninth based on their 14th and 6th place finishes in the event earlier this season. In Kontiolahti, Finland two weeks ago, the sixth-place finish came from a slightly different team – Jay Hakkinen and Annelies Cook were replaced Dunklee and Bailey – and was their best-ever finish in the event. At last year’s World Championships the Americans placed 13th.
The Canadian team will include Megan Imrie, Zina Kocher, Jean Phillipe Le Guellec, and Nathan Smith, and is seeded 18th. In the first mixed relay of the season, Canada placed sixth, but skipped the second event; they also sat out the mixed relay at World Championships last season.