“He told me what a big event it was, and how everybody in the country loved this sport,” Frank said in an interview. “He was telling me about the crowds that came out to see the races in Minsk, and it was inconceivable to me. Back in those days, nobody came to watch a biathlon race. But there, there would be people five or six deep all the way around ski courses.”
Frank’s question was, why? What made the USSR such a fertile hotbed for biathlon?
Almost 35 years later, and after earning his PhD in history from the University of Washington, he has written a book that answers that question. Everyone to Skis! is available for sale from a variety of booksellers nationwide.
Biathlon is certainly not unpopular in Russia today, and many of the other former Soviet republics have also found excellence; Frank believes that the competitions will be “huge, huge” at the upcoming Olympics in Sochi. But even the enthusiastic crowds that flock yearly to World Cups in such remote and frigid places as Khanty-Mansiysk are nothing compared to the glory days of Soviet biathlon.
Consider this scene from the 1974 World Championships in Minsk, the first time a championship skiing event came to the USSR. It was hugely important to the country, but after winning the opening junior individual race, the Soviet competitors failed to get on the podium. (Frank says this was perhaps partially due to the fact that fiberglass skis had just been introduced two weeks earlier, and the Soviet stars did not know how to ski on them.) The Soviet newspapers stopped covering the event.
By the time the last event rolled around, the relay, fans were starving for a Soviet victory. Finland and the Soviet Union were neck and neck in the last leg, and Heikki Ikola and Nikolai Kruglov left the last standing stage together. Then, something happened that would seem crazy today. Frank talked to Ikola about the experience.
“This crowd of 100,000 people just went nuts,” Frank said. “Kruglov would ski by, and they would come in behind him and get in Ikola’s way. Kruglov was ahead of Ikola by a minute and forty seconds or something like that by the end of the relay. Ikola said that they didn’t stop him in the tracks, but you couldn’t see in front of your skis and he was afraid for his life. These were rabid, rabid biathlon fans.”
In the book, Frank explores the reasons why the Soviets were so dedicated to the sport. It all comes down to history and politics: a combination of failed military endeavors and communist ideology.
The union of skiing and shooting became interesting to the USSR after the Winter War of 1939 and 1940, when the Soviets tried to invade Finland. It was a debacle.
“This little band of Finnish ski troopers stopped the mechanized divisions of the Soviet Union,” Frank said. “Stalin thought that he was going to overrun Finland in about two weeks, and the Finns held them off from November until March. As the war drug on, they began to look at how the Finns were able to do it. The Soviets knew the Germans were going to invade, they just didn’t know when. So there was this huge ski mobilization program between the end of the war and through World War II.”
Cross country skiing was already a fairly popular winter sport in the country, given its roots.
“A lot of it has to do with Marxist ideology and the commune,” Frank said. “The historiography of skiing, there was this dichotomy between nordic skiing, which was associated with self-sacrifice and was really related to the working man, whereas downhill skiing was more degenerate and was for the upper classes. So in the Soviet Union obviously it was going to be cross country skiing, the sport for the proletariat.”
This history certainly added to the frenzy that Ikola encountered in the 1974 relay. But so did the fact that the relay was the crowning achievement of Soviet sports.
“The relay was very important because of the team aspect and coordinating with your comrades,” Frank explained. “There’s a lot of ideology that goes into relay racing. They analyzed it and they focused on it because that’s what they wanted to win. They would have students come from the universities and analyze each skier and where he would fit in best. It was a science. “
In biathlon’s first Olympic appearance in 1960, Soviet Aleksandr Privalov won a bronze medal in the 20 k individual, the only competition. Soviet athletes won medals intermittently for many years, but the relay is where they shone. The Soviet Union won the first relay held in 1968, and in every subsequent relay until the union dissolved, regardless of good or bad performances in the individual events.
The Soviet Union was able to do this, of course, because of the incredible volume of skiers they had to select from. In their infamous training system, most racers would burn out, but be immediately replaced by someone just as talented. Even politics couldn’t stop them. One Canadian coach recounted going to the Soviet Union with a team in the 1980’s and racing against political dissidents that weren’t allowed to leave the country or compete internationally. They were so fast that the Canadians couldn’t even get on the second page of the results – but there were plenty of politically correct racers just as fast, so the country did not suffer in international competition.
There was even speculation that the Soviet stars were spying for their country. Frank says that Alexander Tikhonov “as much as told John Morton that he was a KGB officer.” Was this just boasting? It’s impossible to know. (Tikhonov went on to be the head of the International Biathlon Union, and a few years ago was convicted in aiding in planning the murder of a business rival, although he was amnestied and did not go to prison.)
While Russia is still an excellent biathlon nation, the sport is now driven more by Germany, where most of the fans live and much of the money comes from. In addition, many more countries have serious programs than during the Soviet heyday. The sport has matured considerably, and on any given day, more athletes are potential winners.
“There’s just more interest by more countries, and the competition is keener now than it ever was,” Frank explained. “The Soviet Union used to own the sport until East Germany came on strong in the 1980’s. And that had a lot to do with their sport and doping program. But with more and more countries involved in the sport, nobody gets to dominate it anymore.”
In today’s Russia, corruption and a huge economic divide are leading to nostalgia for the Soviet times – something that has persisted consistently for the last 20 years. 51 percent of Russians believe the best system is the one where government plans everything; 49 percent regret the fall of the Soviet Union, although only 22 percent want a government which is identical to the old USSR.
And so Soviet era biathlon, too, might be rising back into the spotlight again too.
“They have a parade in Moscow every year which is kind of like the old Soviet military parades,” Frank said. “Every year since about 2006, they dress up some of the squadrons in outfits from the Great Patriotic War [World War II]. They always have a squadron of ski troopers marching in white uniforms, rifles on their backs, skis over their shoulders, marching through the streets of Moscow. The image of the ski trooper is really a potent one in Russia.”
25 biathletes, including Kruglov and Tikhonov, will be among the torchbearers for Sochi’s Olympic torch relay.
Everyone to Skis! is available as a pre-order from Amazon.
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.