Despite Loss of Title Sponsor and Coach, British Biathlon Still Going Strong on World Cup

Chelsea LittleDecember 20, 20125
Lee-Steve Jackson of Great Britain, bib 57, on the range in the World Cup pursuit in Östersund, Sweden, earlier this season. He placed 58th in the race.

At the end of the 2012 season, longtime title sponsor Skandia dropped their support of the British Biathlon Union. One of the many consequences was that national team coach Walter Pichler, a German with a successful athletic career of his own who had previously coached the U.S. team, left the squad.

“That was a big dip for us,” biathlete Amanda Lightfoot told FasterSkier back at the first World Cups of the season in Östersund, Sweden. “But the Army has helped out magnificently.”

As a result, the Brits were still on the circuit. After finishing in the points (top 40) at each of the last two World Championships, 25-year-old Lightfoot was unsatisfied with her results in Östersund, where she finished 93rd in the 15 k individual and 75th in the 7.5 k sprint; in the coming weekends she placed 78th in the sprint in Hochfilzen, Austria, and 95th in the sprint in Pokljuka, Slovenia.

Whether the lull in results is a result of the changes to her governing body is unclear. But one thing is certain: things have changed for Lightfoot and her teammates. They used to spend considerable time training in Ruhpolding, Germany, with Pichler. Now, Lightfoot has joined teammate Lee-Steve Jackson outside of Lillehammer, Norway, where she works with local coaches as well as Scott Banes, a former athlete. Mark Walker is now the head coach of the team.

“I miss Walter of course, but what can I do,” Lightfoot said. “It’s been better than what I thought. I’m training on my own mostly. I had a week training camp with [the Norwegians], and then there’s opportunities to go once or twice a week and train along side them, if it fits into your program.”

That’s a plan that Jackson has been on ever since the 2010 Olympics.

“I moved to Lillehammer to get in and around the best athletes who do biathlon and see what they are actually doing, and do my best to close the gap,” he told FasterSkier in Östersund.

Lightfoot en route to 36th place in the sprint at last season’s World Championships in Ruhpolding, Germany.

At 32 years of age and now with a total of seven World Championships appearances under his belt, Jackson has been in the sport of biathlon long enough that he needed a step up. In Lillehammer, he found it. Training in Scandinavia is completely different than anything he had experienced before, he said.

“For them, for every level, it’s a lifestyle,” he said. “There are so many athletes at every level, and they’re still training really hard. They sacrifice a job and an education to train full time whether they’re in the national team or just a club team.”

And in terms of high level biathlon, Lillehammer is the place to be. Not only does the bulk of the Norwegian national team train there, but also a collection of other athletes, such as Carl Johan Bergman of Sweden, who picked up two medals at last season’s World Championships.

Like Lightfoot, Jackson mainly trains alone. But he said that he also sometimes joins Norwegian stars Emil Hegle Svendsen and Tarjei Bø, both of whom are World Champions and overall World Cup winners, for a run or a bike ride. What better way to learn what it takes to succeed?

“When it comes to a race, if you want to go fast you have to adopt that lifestyle,” Jackson said. “That’s an important thing. In a lot of other countries, and in our country, it’s a sport. But for them it’s a lifestyle from the age of four or five.”

(To see what Jackson thinks it takes to get better, check out the tattooed marksman’s summer training video from this off-season.)

Jackson is on a quest to score his first World Cup points, and seemed to be on track in Sweden after finishing 57th in the sprint and 58th in the pursuit. After that, he slipped to the mid-90’s in the sprints in Hochfilzen and Pokljuka. But when FasterSkier talked to him after the Östersund pursuit, he was optimistic about the season and didn’t think that those top-60 performances were the best he had to offer.

“I only had two test races before [the first World Cup],” Jackson said. “Because of our circumstances with the women, we missed the mixed relay which would have been a nice preparation. But the sprint and today were much better. I’m not mentally in a place to push beyond my limits yet. So physically, I’m good, but mentally I know that I can hurt myself much more.”

While the men were able to put together a relay team in Hochfilzen, where they placed 22nd of 25 teams, the women weren’t so lucky. With less depth to the team, the budget can’t support sending unqualified athletes to the big show. So while Marcel Laponder has joined Jackson on the World Cup, with a top finish of 87th in the Hochfilzen sprint, Lightfoot is the only Brit representing in the women’s races.

As arguably the highest-achieving member of the team, she may have had the most to lose with the changes to the union. But the stakes are just as high for the other World Cup racers. At that level, other teams have an incredible support system, which is lacking fot the Brits.

“On the bottom level it isn’t that huge,” Jackson said of the loss of Skandia. “We get paid from the military so that’s enough for us to keep ourselves, and there’s enough money from the IBU to keep going to all the races. But on things like coaching and support staff we suffer a lot because we can’t pay them to come and do the job.”

On the British Biathlon Union’s website, they list only two sponsors on their sponsor page and a gaping hole optimistically blares, “It could be you!”

Although Lightfoot’s shooting has been imperfect so far this season – and she sorely needs it to improve, as her 36th-place performance in last season’s World Championships sprint came from a clean slate – improving her form on skis has actually been one of her biggest focuses this summer and fall.

“Skiing-wise, it feels much better,” she said. “This summer that had been my main focus, and keeping the ski speed there. I’ve changed a few things with my technique this year, so I just need to pull together my shooting. It’s not quite there yet, but it will come.”

Besides the Norwegians, experts of ski technique themselves, the British cross country skiers Andrew Musgrave and Andrew Young also train in Lillehammer.

“We’ve almost gathered a small team there,” Jackson joked.

Lightfoot in 11th place after the prone stage of the women’s relay at World Championships; she tagged off in 15th and the Brits went on to place 22nd.

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Chelsea Little

Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.

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  • xclad

    December 21, 2012 at 5:48 am

    Great article and nice to hear about how some of smaller nations in our sport.
    I did a little research though… No mention of the fact that the head coach has been replaced by Mark Walker. And no mention that before pichler left the team was split with people “refusing” to train with pichler and half the team training Under Mark Walker or on their own. And neither of the athletes interviewed were coached by Pichler at the time.
    It is touched on a little bit, but wages… These guys are employed soldiers (although some of them haven’t seen active duty in over 10 years) by the British Military. Their wages are in excess of 30 thousand pounds (roughly $49 thousand) a year. The athletes are then given an “out of barracks allowance” on top of this. They most be amongst some of richest athletes in our sport, at least for their standard. But yet they have the guts to complain about cash instead of just paying it and getting on with it.

    Aside from this, i think it is really impressive to see a small nation doing so well, and i take my hat off to them.

  • Chelsea Little

    December 21, 2012 at 6:43 am

    Hi xclad, thank you for the comment. The article has been updated to reflect that Mark Walker is the head coach – my mistake.

  • marcel

    December 21, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Hello, this response is to give a deeper understanding before wrong conclusions are drawn with the first comment from ‘xclad’. Note none of us are pleading poverty as our wages pays for our training, it is our federation that doesn’t have any, I hope the below gives a better understanding that most of our wages goes into the sport. (Prices are top of my head and may vary a bit but they are close enough. Prices are in most cases comparison between Germany and Norway). Whats below is what I roughly spend on the sport but of course this may differ between athletes depending if you are training independently or are training under the provided head coach.

    Most of the international athletes on the IBU come from a military, police and customs background, without this support most athletes would not get the spring board into the sport. Yes, the British Athletes are paid by the military and the British Army as you have mentioned is probably one of the best paid militaries in the world, the salaries you mentioned is of course dependant on time served, rank, trade. Most of the athletes as long as they remain athletes will not get promoted, so in effect have a frozen pay. If you are based in Germany you do get extra allowances. The single soldier at camp pays around 45 Euro per month for military accommodation and around 4-5 Euro a day for military provided food which normally is rather good.

    The track suit soldier who is living in a location that is suitable for his/her training requirement is paying for his own accommodation anything from 250 to 350 Euro a month. Food is around 200-300 Euro a month. Hence the extra allowance.

    Then this is where the rest of the wages goes:

    Ammunition: depending where you live, Norway you could pay 2 Euro a bullet! Germany 20 cents or so for the same type of ammo, multiply that by 5000 rounds for the season.
    Rollerskis: One slow pair, one fast pair, one classic, each from around 250 euro, each season they need new wheels. The shafts break they need replacement some times they cant get exchanged and need to be bought again, I’ve owed around 10 pairs of rollerskis. Gym fees, 6-10 euros a session, some of the team started buying there own weights to save long term on gym fees.

    Skis: We get World Cup prices but if you buy 4 or 8 pairs of skis each season it still adds up.
    Summer training is entirely self funded. Winter is mostly funded apart from Team subs: calculated at a daily rate, this pays for the team bus and general team expensive. Rifle stock: maybe every now and then you need a new one, i’ve gone through 3 stocks because of falls and breakages.

    New guys on the team need to buy training clothing, if they haven’t trained full time before which is few, then they need to buy a lot, bikes, running shoes (I go through 1-3 pairs of running trainers a year). I use at least one set of ski boots up a year. I have a summer and a winter set of ski boots. There is no team physio, in summer I use the physio 2-3 times a week for recovery, depending where you are you are paying 15-45 euro a session. For on season I use a foam roller, self massage, and EMS. I share a shooting coach with one other athlete in summer, the coach needs paying too, once again coach depending this can be 40-60 euro a session. There are range fees, rifle club fees to keep a fire arms licence. Athletes go back to their military unit each year for courses, I went back last year for 12 weeks where I was just able to maintain 10 hours a week, to maintain some specific training I invested in a double pole machine, 800 Euro.

    One of the single most expensive bits is sport science, testing cost me around 1000 -2000 Euro a year, deepening who you test with and how often. Ideally testing is done several times a year. Things which you need if you train your self. Lactate analyser 250 Euro, Capnometer 1000 Euro, oxymeter 100 Euro. Use of a rollerski treadmill is 75-110 Euro per hour.

    Yes we are well paid, but that money goes straight into the sport. With sponsorship the team could do better.

    Although opinions might vary if I had a say in the matter then my personal opinion is that in a ideal world most sponsorship should go to Sport Science as this is where the improvements in athletes are made, to make a team self sufficient you will need around 30-40 000 Euro for Hemodynamic, respiratory, NIRs equipment. Athletes cant afford this themselves.

    With sponsorship we can invest in young talent, there are at least two very potential non military athletes who are the future of our team, but only as long as there is money which can be invested in them. Some of the big teams have one support staff for every two athletes, a full time physio for the competition season, at least two coaches. We have one wax man for the world cup, sometimes no coach for the world cup. On the IBU Cup the coach doubles as wax man, we have no full time IBU Cup wax man. On some events athletes have to act as manager and wax man. In the past athletes have had to pay towards flights and to save the federation money we sometimes use our own cars to get between events.

    So to sum up, with our own wages we can train and pay for our summer travel etc, we are not complaining about our wages, it is our federation that needs sponsorship so they can employ wax men, coaches, physio, invest in future upcoming military and non military athletes, pay for flights, waxes, etc.

    Its a bit long but hope it gives a clearer picture.


  • carloscarrios

    December 21, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    xclad does raise a very interesting point which Marcel has responded to very thoroughly. Some of the British athletes are paid well and some of those athletes spend a huge percentage of their wages on turning over every stone to improve their performance. Some of this money is wasted on unsuccessful exploits but are not put off looking for the next stone. xclad you have touched on a point about operational service which is true that whilst some of the athletes have been competing they have not been operational but they all have operational service before (lets say) turning professional, and some have been called back to units to deploy mid way through a season. This is something which I would argue that possibly only the British Military athletes have to bear in mind as most countries professional military biathletes are not in the frame to be operationally deployed. xclad you are also unfortunately incorrect about Walter, Amanda trained under Walter the whole time he was with the team and yes some people were competent enough to move away from the main coach to progress how they felt and some choose to train with Marc. it would have been impossible for Walter to train all of the athletes anyway.
    I am glad all these important points have been raised as it is something that needs to be kept in mind when the team chooses the next direction to move but lets not be to naive and make to many sweeping statements. Money is needed for the federation to survive long term as the Military will not be able to support this sport for much longer, the future core is young civvy kids who will not have a wage.

    It is great that people are talking about the team though!!!!

  • rexsircus

    December 27, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    Good to see this subject being discussed. Marcel is correct to say that “with sponsorship we can invest in young talent, there are at least two very potential non military athletes who are the future of our team”. These two, Calum Irvine and Scott Dixon are both just 18 and already racing at IBU Cup level. Scott, son of 6 times GB Olympian and former GB Biathlon Team Captain Mike Dixon has also now qualified to race at World Cup level which is likely to take place at an upcoming World Cup Relay Event. The Boys have both represented Great Britain already at the European Youth Olympic Festival 2010, the 1st Olympic Youth Winter Games and the World Biathlon Youth Championships in 2012. The good news is that there are indeed more talented youngsters now coming out of the Cairngorm Biathlon & Nordic Ski Club near Aviemore in Scotland where these boys also developed their skills under Club Founder and still Head Coach, Mike Dixon, MBE, BEM. Three more boys, Robert Sircus, Sam Cairns and Lachlan Cowie (all now aged 17) have already been nominated by the British Biathlon Union to represent Great Britain in Biathlon in two months time at the next European Youth Olympic Winter Festival at Brasov in Romania. These three boys along with one other were all invited to join the GB Biathlon Team Development Squad after taking high placings at both U18 & U21 levels in the GB Biathlon Championships at Ruhpolding in 2012. Following on from these boys are also some highly promising girls with two in particular, Carla Sermanni & Marie Blair now producing outstanding shooting scores to match those of the boys and setting their own sights firmly upon the European Youth Olympic Winter Festival of 2015.

    There is indeed a talent pool of enthusiastic and dedicated young civilian biathletes developing in Scotland with the potential to have a huge and positive impact upon the sport in Great Britain. Some personal support is forthcoming from a number of funding organisations in the UK but mainly from their families and Club fundraising activities. If all of this terrific talent is to be brought through to the highest level then there must be a way found to invest in their potential and keep them in the sport. At present the UK increasingly seeks to focus spending upon those few sports which have already been successful in winning medals at Olympic and other Games, most notably cycling, rowing, athletics and sailing. In other words the focus is on funding those sports where development has already taken place and been seen to be highly successful, yet some of these sports themselves, including cycling, were previously languishing in the Doldrums until funding streams were put in place to take them forwards to the success they enjoy today.

    So why not do the same for the talented and highly promising young sportsmen and women who already exist in other lesser known sports. They are out there, be it the CBNSC Junior Biathletes, the talented GB Nordic Skiers such as Andrew Musgrave, Andrew Young and Sarah Hales or others from a whole variety of sports from all over Great Britain and Northern Ireland who can reach for the heights but may struggle to do so but for even a modest investment in their development. No Nation, no business and no sport can look forward to a successful future without seeking to invest in that future. Development is not a luxury – it is essential and we should all strive to put it in place.

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