The US Biathlon Association (USBA) has already qualified two World Championships medalists for their 2018 Olympic team, but four more men and four more women will still be selected – and those spots could go to almost anyone.
USBA has a multi-stage athlete selection process. One or two more athletes of each gender will be selected based on the first period of World Cup results. For both men and women, part of that World Cup roster is already set and the rest will be chosen based on rollerski trials this summer and fall.
Then, the World Cup athletes who weren’t selected will be sent down to the IBU Cup in January, where they will duke it out against the best U.S.-based athletes who qualified for the trip based on NorAm Cup races in December. The team will be filled to four men and four women from these IBU Cup races.
Finally, a fifth member of the team to PyeongChang, South Korea, will be added to each team based on discretion.
“Biathlon is a sport where you have to have a constant high level of performance, because you never know when you will get a chance… shooting can go off and on every single day,” USBA Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler said in an interview last week. “We give a reward for a consistent high performance level through this [December] pre-qualification system. And, with the trials system [in January], we are only three weeks away from the Olympic Games then. So we get the guys who are just on the upswing of performance towards the Games – maybe they didn’t have a good last year or didn’t have a good December, but now in January they are on the upswing.
“What we want to make sure with that system, is that we have clearly the best U.S. team on the start line that is possible,” he said.
December World Cups
The standard for making the Olympics based on upcoming World Cup results is to hit the top 30.
The Olympic team can be filled to up to three athletes of each gender based on this standard. If multiple athletes turn in top-30 results in the first three weeks of World Cup racing, those with the best single result will be chosen. If nobody meets the mark, then one athlete with the best single result, even if it’s outside the top 30, will be chosen to join Lowell Bailey and Susan Dunklee, who are pre-qualified based on their gold- and silver-medal performances at 2017 World Championships.
“It’s clear from the performance level that we have in our team now that everybody wants to go for that pre-qualification spot in December, which means that you need one top-30,” Eisenbichler said. “In the Olympic season, you have to do that quite easily. We expect that from them. One top 30, for all the athletes we have on the start line, that’s something that they need to do to get ready for the Games.”
World Cup qualifying criteria have not yet been published, but have been substantially the same for several years.
Last season, athletes with top-20 World Cup results were pre-selected for the next season’s World Cup. If that criterion were repeated, that would mean that Bailey, Dunklee, Tim Burke, Sean Doherty, and Clare Egan would be given spots.
The rest of the selections are made based on rollerski trials to be held in August and October, and by discretion based on a number of factors including performance at an early-season training camp.
While the criteria to qualify via the World Cup are clear, one thing to note is that there is a maximum team sized which can be named through this mechanism: three total athletes of each gender. If more athletes meet the mark – as Eisenbichler hopes and expects they will – the group will be winnowed down based on who does best.
Last season Bailey, Burke, Dunklee, Egan, and Joanne Reid all notched top-30’s in just the first week of racing. Doherty and Leif Nordgren missed the first period of racing due to illness and injury, but collected top-30’s later in the season.
“The harder part is for sure to send two men and one woman back from the World Cup in December, who could potentially have also had pretty good results,” Eisenbichler said. “Potentially they could also have been in the top 30, but just the other two athletes were a little better. That could create for sure quite some frustration.”
January Racing and a Level Field
That frustration by athletes who had been succeeding on the World Cup, Eisenbichler believed, was worth it in order to create a good selection system.
“I think that it’s fair to give the athletes from the North American Cup qualification in December the chance to show their level in January against the ones that had the chance over three weeks in December at the World Cups,” he said. “Race it out on the international level. I think it’s fair.”
How many athletes are sent to the IBU Cup based on the December races in Minnesota is yet to be determined. The U.S. will fill its IBU Cup quota with a combination of athletes already in Europe and those being sent over anew from the U.S.; whether one or two more men or women are already selected to the Olympic team determines how many quota spots will be filled by December World Cup athletes, and how many are left to be filled by athletes who had been racing in North America.
“The most difficulty we could have, is that if we only pre-qualify one more athlete in December and we have to send three athletes back to the IBU Cup, that would limit the number of athletes that could qualify from the NorAm Cups in Minnesota,” Eisenbichler explained. “That could potentially go down for the men’s team to just the winner of the trials. That could create frustration over there. But again, that’s how the system works.”
And although the exact number of athletes offered an IBU Cup chance is up in the air, there is some clarity: win the Minnesota races, and you’ll be within one step of making the Olympic team. The trials winner will be sent to Europe no matter what.
“I think that’s very important for them to see a clear, streamlined path that they can rely on,” Eisenbichler said. “It’s not left up in the air, like no matter what I do I’m never sure if I will get a qualification. If you win the trials, you get to go. That’s our rule. The winner of the trials always gets to go. There will be never a discussion about that.”
Once in Europe, it’s not a foregone conclusion that the World Cup athletes who are sent to these January trials will come out on top and get the Olympic spots. In 2014, Jeremy Teela started the season on the World Cup but was ultimately left off the Olympic team as he was beaten in every IBU Cup race by Russell Currier.
(Sean Doherty was the discretionary pick after besting all other Americans in one of the IBU Cup races.)
Likewise, in 2010 Kevin Patzoldt competed in the early World Cups but ultimately did not make the cut in the January trials.
On the other hand, some of the World Cup athletes sent to these IBU Cups have simply dominated. But that’s the point, according to Eisenbichler: to see what happens, rather than to leave team staff and the athletes themselves wondering whether they were actually better than a World Cup athlete they never got to race against.
“I think it’s fair, especially going into the Olympics, to compare athletes shortly before the Games,” Eisenbichler said. “To see the level of the best athletes who just didn’t make the cut through the [fall] rollerski races… We are growing quite fast now with our new pipeline, with the Talent ID Camp and new cross-country skiers changing to biathlon. I think it’s fair to show them, to motivate them to do this sport, to say, ‘Hey, there’s an open door to qualify during the season for different events.’”
And regardless of history in the sport or even that season, athletes chosen at the January IBU Cup races – rather than based on earlier results on the World Cup – have gone on to solid Olympic success.
In 2010, Lanny Barnes didn’t qualify through the World Cup, but did well in the IBU Cup races and ultimately placed 23rd in the Olympic 15 k.
In 2014, Hannah Dreissigacker was picked for the team through January IBU Cups and turned in an identical result, 23rd in the Olympic 15 k.
The last roster spot for the 2018 Olympics will be filled by discretion.
“As we all know, discretion is always a point of controversy, and especially in an Olympic year,” Eisenbichler admitted. “That is something that we know, and we will look very, very carefully. But I think it’s absolutely necessary and I’m grateful to have it. For example, we could have someone who is in great shape but is sick during the trials, yet was clearly ahead of the others in all the other races [before that].”
There are six metrics listed in the criteria which could be considered to make a discretionary pick:
- History of performance in a specific competition type over the current and previous competitive seasons
- Recent improvements in results or performance parameters such as ski speed and shooting performance (both in training and competition)
- Recent positive trend of competition results or performance parameters, such as ski speed and shooting, indicating a potential for Olympic success. This includes indication of medal potential in future Olympic or World Championship competition that would be materially enhanced by selection to the Team.
- Recent decline in results or performance parameters such as ski speed and shooting performance (both in training and competition)
- Performance/participation in the qualification process effected by illness or injury as certified by USBA
- Ability to effectively contribute to a relay
For the discretionary selection, Eisenbichler makes a proposal of who to select, but the various athletes in the mix are then discussed at length by USBA’s International Competition Committee. The committee are the ones who finally settle on a selection, which may or may not be Eisenbichler’s first choice.
“We have a former athlete in there with Sara Studebaker, we have a domestic coach [Sarah Lehto of National Guard Biathlon], we have a chair who has worked a long time for the U.S. Olympic Committee with Jay T. Kearney, and we have Jonne [Kahkonen, the women’s national team coach] and myself,” Eisenbichler said of the committee. “I can tell you that in the last years we were in contentious discussions. But I think the outcome was always as objective as a discretionary choice can be. We had very little discussions afterwards, because we had put everything on the table [in the committee].”
Coming from Germany, Eisenbichler has a slightly different perspective on how discretion could be used than do most American coaches.
“What I really felt when I took the position in 2007, was that discretion was this big monster out there that everybody was so afraid of,” he laughed. “I was so surprised about it. Maybe some sports have a history of that, so it’s understandable… But coming from Germany, we have a little different system in place, with a lot more discretion. They look at results for the basic qualification for the Olympic Games, but after that there are six or seven athletes who meet that and have the same performance level, and then it’s all discretion.”
Eisenbichler certainly isn’t asking for a German-style system. He’s happy with his one discretionary pick. And in order to make that pick seem less like a “monster,” he has put in big efforts to be transparent about how choices are made.
“We worked really, really hard over the last ten years to establish a trust among the athletes,” Eisenbichler explained. “We want them to know that it’s still something that is unclear, but the [committee] makes the best possible choice they can, and they provide a clear rationale about the decision right after. We explain the discretionary choice to the athletes who were affected by it — the ones that get to go, but also the two or three who were close and hoped and believed that they could be a discretionary pick. I think this communication right after the decision is the most important way to gain the trust of the athletes in that system.”
Filling a Team
Until 2006, USBA had more of a straight-up Olympic trials system. But even if it may sometimes seem like a labyrinth, Eisenbichler believes the new system – which will be used for a third Olympic Games this year – is much better.
“To just look at just a few performances for the Games or the Trials is absolutely not what we want from our coaching leadership and myself,” he asserted. “We want to have a constant high level of performance throughout the whole year.”
Furthermore, Eisenbichler asserts that the system is accepted and supported by athletes. Even regarding the discretionary picks, there has been little blowback.
“It’s well understood, well established, and even, I would say, a well respected system from the athletes,” he said. “We have pretty much no complaints over the last eight, nine years for World Championships and Olympic picks.”
Recently, USBA has been improving its Olympic results.
In 2006, Jay Hakkinen posted a best-ever mark for a U.S. man in 10th. In 2010, Jeremy Teela moved that up to ninth. In 2014, Lowell Bailey finished eighth.
On the women’s side, Susan Dunklee finished 11th in 2014, besting Joan Smith’s mark of 14th place set in 1994.
With Dunklee and Bailey winning medals at last year’s World Championships, Eisenbichler hopes that the upward trend can continue – and that the criteria will select the team that can make it happen.
“With that mixture, and having one discretionary choice as well, I think that we made sure in 2010 and 2014 that we had the four or five strongest athletes at the Games,” he said. “And I think it was a totally fair and transparent system. I am very comfortable with the system again going into PyeongChang.”
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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.