NOVÉ MĚSTO NA MORAVĚ, Czech Republic – For the athletes here at IBU World Championships, the competitions represent the test of a year’s worth of training, all carefully planned and executed.
But for the inhabitants of this small town of just over 10,000, and perhaps for Czech winter sports itself, the nearly two-week event is also a test. How well can a winter sports federation and organizing committee which are definitely not among the sport’s wealthiest pull off a major championship event in a previously unremarkable venue?
Because it’s easy to forget, standing in the brightly lit stadium with tall grandstands holding well over 20,000 fans rising on every side, that just a few years ago there was barely any infrastructure here. The football-stadium feel? That’s new. Even athletes who have been traveling here for years are surprised to see the changes.
“This was one of the first venues I ever came to to race in Europe,” American biathlete Susan Dunklee told FasterSkier. “It was for an IBU Cup, and I couldn’t recognize it now from then. It’s so different. The stands, this whole part of the stands is new, that part was new last year, the wax facilities were new last year, they changed the course last year to make it more on the other side of the road, so it’s totally different. It’s cool to see.”
And more than simply the infrastructure, it’s the rabid enthusiasm of the Czech fans that was remarkable as World Championships kicked off with the mixed relay on Thursday. Racer after racer commented on the atmosphere in the arena, with Martin Fourcade of France noting that it was a great advertisement for the excitement of biathlon. Synnøve Solemdal of Norway said that she was “surprised, but happy” to see the how much Czechs love biathlon, and teammate Emil Hegle Svendsen described a “fantastic audience.”
Even as a journalist, volunteer, coach, or other support staff, standing on the infield sends a jolt of adrenaline through your system. The fans sing along with the announcements on the loudspeakers; they cheer to thank the range officials. The 27,000 voices boom and crack through the night air. Even before the race kicked off, U.S. shooting coach Armin Auchentaller marveled at the atmosphere as he stood behind the firing line.
The town held its first World Cup competition here last year, and even then it wasn’t clear that World Championships would turn out to be the high-octane event that was seen on Thursday. Competitors who raced in the test event were still surprised when they showed up this year.
“It’s awesome,” Canada’s Jean Philippe Le Guellec told FasterSkier. “The crowd is really phenomenal and it’s really nice. I didn’t expect to have this kind of turnover, but when we got here and saw the stadium we had a glimpse of what would be possible, and here it is.”
And so, surprisingly, the tiny Czech Republic is taking its place as a hotbed of biathlon. The bronze medal by the home country’s mixed relay team in the opening race proved that they have the athletic chops; the fans prove they have the enthusiasm.
“The stands are packed,” U.S. athlete Leif Nordgren said. “It’s awesome. This is the loudest crowd I’ve ever had, I think… Seeing the size of the stands, it’s not surprising, but whenever the Czech team was shooting, it was deafening. That was really cool.”
Other athletes agreed: watch out, traditional venues. This little town is on the schedule to stay.
“It’s awesome, totally awesome,” American Lowell Bailey told FasterSkier. “Germany might be the home of biathlon, but Czech has just as much or more atmosphere. And to have them get the bronze today, it couldn’t be more perfect for them. We’re good friends with that team. They’re all great guys, I’ve trained with them, and they deserve it, absolutely.”
The bottom line seemed to be that the organizing committee’s hard work paid off. Dunklee pondered the immense effort it must have taken to get the venue in shape for such a successful event.
“You look at all the blue and white outfits around here, the volunteers,” she said. “And then all of the spectators that they convinced to come. They have a lot of enthusiasm – it’s phenomenal. I wasn’t expecting it to be another Ruhpolding or Oberhof, but it looks like it is.”
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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.