BiathlonGeneralNewsRacingWorld CupWhy Did Germany Flame Out in Sochi – And Will They Be Back?

Avatar Chelsea LittleNovember 28, 20145

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 11.47.26 PMThe German nordic sports experience at the 2014 Olympics could perhaps be summed up on the last day of competition.

In the men’s 50 k, Germany entered four men. The finishers were led by Thomas Bing, about to turn 24 years old, in 36th place.

Next came Axel Teichmann, more than ten years Bing’s senior. Then two biathletes – Arnd Peiffer and Erik Lesser, in their 50 k debuts on the world stage and within a minute of Teichmann’s time.

Four years earlier, Teichmann had captured silver for Germany in the same event, but on that day in February he labored to 39th place, more than four minutes behind the winning Russian skier. While Germany still had a few of their stars from days past on their roster, they were mostly stars no more.

Peiffer and Lesser had teamed up for a silver medal in the biathlon relay the day before, but they surely were not on fire in the 50 k (understandably). While they treated the race as a fun way to end their Games – and some other biathletes and nordic combined skiers probably would have jumped at the chance to do the same thing – their participation brought up an uncomfortable question: can Germany find nobody else?

To say that Sochi was a disappointment for Germany would be an understatement. While expectations were somewhat tempered by their team’s performance so far that year, it was hard not to remember Vancouver. There, biathlete Magdalena Neuner won two golds and a silver, Simone Hauswald shared the podium with her when she earned bronze in the mass start, and the relay also took bronze.

Germany's Tim Tscharnke (l) after the finish of the 2014 Olympic team sprint with teammate Hannes Dotzler. The two finished seventh after Tscharnke fell a few hundred meters before the finish as a result of a tangle with Finnish anchor Sami Jauhojärvi. Finland took gold and Germany placed seventh.
Germany’s Tim Tscharnke (l) after the finish of the 2014 Olympic team sprint with teammate Hannes Dotzler. The two finished seventh after Tscharnke fell a few hundred meters before the finish as a result of a tangle with Finnish anchor Sami Jauhojärvi. Finland took gold and Germany placed seventh.

In cross country, Nystad and Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle had teamed up for gold in the Vancouver team sprint, Teichmann and Tim Tscharnke took silver in the men’s event, the German women were second in the relay, and the men won two individual silver medals.

For a little perspective: in 2014, Germany came away with three medals, total, in cross country and biathlon combined.

Where to start with the embarrassments? Was it Sachenbacher-Stehle testing positive for a banned stimulant? Or was it Tscharnke falling down in the final stretch of the team sprint and, instead of getting up and likely earning bronze, lying in a heap whimpering about how he missed out on gold?

In a Deutscher Olympischer SportBund report obtained by FasterSkier, the country’s Olympic committee assesses the success of each sport at the 2014 Olympics, and looks for actionable plans to move forward and upward. The document runs more that 230 pages and not only focuses on each sport individually, but also on funding partners, medical and logistical support, and what other countries are doing to succeed. It’s an impressive analysis of a huge and complex system.

A Cross Country Team Too Old and Too Young

“Denise Herrmann and Josef Wenzl improved in the world rankings in the 2013/2014 season and even at times led the Sprint Cup,” the report noted of young German skiers. “But the pre-Olympic season was marked by a disappointing World Cup, and the coaching change in 2012 didn’t bring the expected turnaround.”

Herrman was one of the great hopes for Germany – a medal in the skate sprint seemed very possible for the 25-year-old (and if that doesn’t sound “young”, the report notes that the average age of a medalist was 28 for women and 29 for men). But like other favorites including Marit Bjørgen and Kikkan Randall, she didn’t make the final.

That was symbolic of the single medal and three top-8 finishes by German skiers, their worst performance at an Olympic Games since 1998.

While performances by the team’s young stars showed that maybe they weren’t ready for literally the biggest stage in the sports world, the squad was also filled with older athletes. The single medal came in the women’s relay, where 36-year-old Nystad was helped earn bronze and the team came into the sprint finish with the leaders.

Kerttu Niskanen of Finland leading Claudia Nystad of Germany in the Olympic relay. Nystad completed her comeback from retirement with a bronze medal.
Kerttu Niskanen of Finland leading Claudia Nystad of Germany in the Olympic relay. Nystad completed her comeback from retirement with a bronze medal.

The report noted that Nystad was the oldest medalist in cross-country skiing. But they didn’t say what the rest of the team’s aging veterans accomplished: because Teichmann didn’t contribute much, nor did 36-year-old Tobias Angerer. None of the women who competed in the 15 k skiathlon were under the age of 30.

Nordic sports are particularly difficult to analyze, the report noted, with different techniques and physiological demands of uphill and flat sections, aggression needed on downhills, transitions essential on rolling terrain, and equipment and ski service becoming increasingly important.

But the best athletes, the report explained, are in general among the best at each of these different aspects, and having a weakness in one area can’t necessarily be compensated for by excellence in another area due to the high level of competition in the field.

What do they recommend to get German skiing back on track? For once thing, they focus on a “long-term development structure” and suggest that the objectives and tasks be reworked after observing other country’s strategies for developing cross country skiers.

Another recommendation is that while providing for an athlete’s development, not to treat them as machines: “An essential prerequisite of all participating institutions is to in close cooperation control the sport, but also the personal development of the athletes and to focus on the achievement of future excellence in high-performance.”

Finally, the committee noted that the ski association’s current strategy of setting up different training groups seems to be effective, but that it should look towards biathlon and nordic combined for how to systemize development at the junior level.

If there’s more talent coming up, there may finally be starts for them. Teichmann, Angerer, and Katrin Zeller retired. Nystad is back in action and had a strong race in Beitostolen, Norway, this weekend.

What Happened to Biathlon?

Erik Lesser of Germany en route to a silver medal in Sochi.
Erik Lesser of Germany en route to a silver medal in Sochi.

Biathlon was an unmitigated disaster for Germany at the Sochi Olympics. On the second page of the biathlon section of the report, the committee addresses an ugly truth: the medal rankings. Germany collected two medals, one silver and one bronze, which landed them in fourth place (although there were several ties; five teams were better, two the same). The Czech Republic surged past them with five medals.

“Besides the established nations of Germany, France, Russia, and Norway, increasingly athletes from Austria,the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Canada are gaining podiums and placing among the world leaders,” the report noted.

Echoing a sentiment expressed by many of the sport’s observers, the committee crunched some numbers and showed that biathlon is, in fact, getting increasingly competitive: the same level of performance that might have won a medal in the past just doesn’t cut it anymore.

“In order to achieve podium finishes, the men at maximum about 1.2 percent behind in skiing, and hit targets at a rate of of about 98 percent. The previously assumed requirement to be 1.5 percent back and a 95 percent hit rate are therefore obsolete now… in the women’s field, a hit rate of 96 percent and maximum ski speeds less than 2.0 percent back are needed to reach medal placings… the best individual performances in the opening contest, the sprint, were… clearly behind the world leaders in both skiing and hit rate as well as in the shooting times. Because they were immediately dependent on the sprint results, the prospects were thus low for the subsequent pursuit.”

Forget medals – it didn’t get any better for Germany when considering top-8 performances: in other words, they weren’t even close to winning more medals. The team had only three top-eight finishes (discounting those from Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle after her doping ban). Norway and the Czech Republic led the way with 11, while France had 10. Germany’s three tied it with the United States, Canada, and Slovakia.

The women’s team, the report noted, was highly variable. After the Vancouver Games, three stars retired (Kati Wilhelm, Martina Beck, and Simone Hauswald), while Magdalena Neuner called it quits after the 2012 World Championships in Ruhpolding, Germany.

“[The team] ultimately consisted of two juniors (Franziska Preuss, Laura Dahlmeier); a very experienced senior athlete (Andrea Henkel); an experienced, former cross-country skier – with considerable training effort for the stabilization of the shooting performance (Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle); and an athlete who in comparison to previous years increased her experience but at events as big as Sochi still has far to go (Franziska Hildebrand). The challenging tracks in Sochi required a high level of competition experience with regard to the race schedule. Their could succeed in competition only on the basis of a high level of physical and mental performance. These parameters within the existing team structure are pronounced insufficient for an Olympic Winter Games.”
Magdalena Neuner, a three-time World Cup champion, double Olympic gold medalist, and winner of 17 World Championships medals, has been critical of the DSV's biathlon program. Photo: NordicFocus/Fischer.
Magdalena Neuner, a three-time World Cup champion, double Olympic gold medalist, and winner of 17 World Championships medals, has been critical of the DSV’s biathlon program. Photo: NordicFocus/Fischer.

Since the Olympics, Neuner has publicly criticized the Deutscher Skiverband (DSV, the governing body for snow sports) and accused them of being behind the times and resistant to change.

“Times have changed, and the level of the World Cup has increased,” she told Der Spiegel. “[They] didn’t want to think differently… the team needs someone who has a bit more sensitivity for the young girls. The World Cup is a tough business. And because they are currently not as successful, it is even harder. Now they need a coach who is fully behind them.”

In a separate conversation with Sport1, Neuner said that far too much pressure had been put on the likes of Dahlmeier and Preuss, who just two years before had been competing at the Youth Olympic Games.

Her leadoff leg of the women’s relay was tough to watch – she fell, and also had her rifle sight clogged with snow. Perhaps additionally discombobulated by Sachenbacher-Stehle’s doping result, Preuss tagged off three minutes behind the leader and in tears. She was 19 years old, and has since made it clear that she never wants to revisit the memory.

“It’s always difficult in the first World Cup season, and especially at the Olympics for young athletes: the pressure is greater than they had ever imagined,” Neuner told Sport1. “You think you’re now relaxed on the World Cup, but it is different than before. The public attention is so high and the pressure as well.”

She also said that the trainers did not sufficiently individualize training plans, and as a result many of the athletes were often exhausted and sick. Neuner trained more or less independently of the national team during her most successful years.

Neuner has since been in contact with the DSV, and they have reportedly offered her a position to advise them.

Henkel – who has medals from three Olympics and teamed up on relays with the strongest German biathletes ever, from Uschi Disl to Neuner – has since retired, married longtime boyfriend Tim Burke, and is planning a life in the U.S. German media is calling the very young German women’s team perhaps the most challenging squad since the reunification of East and West Germany.

“You shouldn’t compare these girls to what was before, but give them some time to develop and not have a lot of worry,” the told news.de.

What About Everyone Else?

How does Germany apply the same logic to other countries? The report also contains information on each of Germany’s main rivals: France, Canada, Norway, Russia, and the United States. A few interesting assessments:

France, it notes, won 15 medals – but all came in ski and snow sports, a “problem” noted by the head of the French effort and which will be targeted for expansion in coming years. How does France fund their efforts? Among other things, through the military, customs, and border patrol, which provides athletes with salaries. 60 percent of the medals won came from athletes in these programs, and only in jumping was the success unrelated.

“There is a positive trend in the spending from 2010 to 2013, for the key role of competitive sports the Institute for French High-Performance Sports [INSEP] used 63 percent of its total expenditures, or about 21 million euros. The budget for research projects amounted in 2012 to about 18 percent or 5.8 million euros and in 2013, about 12 percent or 3.9 million euros. Research and development activities to support the development of competitive sports staffed 18 employees of the Research Department of the INSEP.”

In assessing Canada, the report mentioned the governments Athlete Assistance Program (AAP) and discusses Own the Podium (OTP) at length. It concludes:

“Given increasingly costly global funding for sports and declining sponsorship in Canada, it needs to be clarified whether Canada can afford wider sports funding at present. The summer sports have obtained more financial due to the larger number of sports, despite fewer medals. After Sochi there is again, as before in 2013, debate about the questions: is it important for the summer sports to be equally successful as the winter ones? Is success in some sports more important than others? Does Canada have to be equally successful in Olympic and Paralympic Games?”

And how does the U.S. succeed? Germany marvels at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s very different funding strategy:

“With the relaunch of the USOC site ‘Team USA,’ the creators succeeded with the new website and numerous promotions to make an increasingly patriotic, emotionally-tinged connection between the American ‘consumers’ and Team USA. According to the 2012 Annual Report of the USOC, 130 million Americans are ‘fans’ of the Olympic Movement and at the end of 2012, USOC social media sites had more than 3.5 million followers. Team USA is 34 business partners, sponsors and suppliers – including Coca Cola, Dow Chemical, Samsung, VISA and Nike. The message [is that] that all Americans are part of the team behind the team USA and that without the willingness to provide financial support for the athletes a successful performance in the international arena is not possible…”

Can German nordic sports get their mojo back this season? We’ll have a hint at an answer this weekend: the FIS Cross Country World Cup kicks off in Kuusamo, Finland, and on Sunday the first IBU Biathlon World Cup will be held in Östersund, Sweden.

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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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