BiathlonGeneralOlympicsRacingReflections of an Old-Timer at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics

FasterSkier FasterSkierMarch 2, 2018
John Morton at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria (Courtesy photo)

The following was submitted to FasterSkier by John Morton, a former U.S. biathlete and two-time Olympian (1972 and 1976) who has attended 10 Winter Olympics as “either an athlete, a coach, the Biathlon Team Leader, Chief of Course or, more recently as a spectator,” according to his bio (at end of article). Today, Morton, 71, lives in Thetford, Vermont, and works in trail design.

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I’ve had the remarkable good fortune of attending 10 Winter Olympic Games. I was a member of the U.S. Biathlon Team in 1972 at Sapporo and again in ’76 at Innsbruck (where, following a workout, a few of U.S. ski-shooters wandered over to the adjacent cross-country stadium and watched Bill Koch win his monumental silver medal in the men’s 30 km). I was an assistant coach for the U.S. biathletes at the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, where late in the schedule, I accepted a complementary ticket to a hockey game, not even knowing which teams were playing. It turned out to be the USA’s remarkable victory over the Soviet Union, probably the most inspiring sporting event I’ll ever witness. I served as Team Leader for the U.S. biathletes at Calgary in ‘88, Albertville in ‘92 and Lillehammer in ‘94. Then, in 2002, I was the Chief of Course for the biathlon events during the Salt Lake City Olympics, a volunteer position that was every bit as stressful as competing back in ’72 and ‘76.

At the most recent three Winter Games, Vancouver, Sochi and PyeongChang, my wife and I have enjoyed the relative luxury of attending as spectators, cheering on America’s cross-country skiers and biathletes. As the jet lag from out trip home from South Korea begins to wear off, I can’t help thinking about the dramatic changes these two sports have experienced over the past 46 years. It seems to me that many of these changes can be traced to three factors: innovations by the athletes, technological improvements and the influence of television.

John Morton at 1972 biathlon Olympic trials in Jackson, Wyoming. (Courtesy photo)

Back in ’72 we were on wooden skis, kick-waxed the entire length. There were two biathlon events, the 20 km individual and the 4 x 7.5 km relay. We shot large-caliber rifles on a 150-meter range using paper targets for the 20 km and glass disks for the relay. It was impossible to determine the winner of the 20 km until all the paper targets had been carefully inspected, sometimes hours after the conclusion of the event. A typical biathlon course consisted of three, independent, 4 km loops, with cutoffs for the relay. Women didn’t compete in biathlon at the Olympics until Albertville in 1992.

Men’s cross-country has been part of the Winter Olympics since the beginning in 1924 at Chamonix, France, when there was a 15 km event as well as the legendary 50 km. The first cross-country event for women was a 10 km, which debuted in 1952. In those days, Nordic race courses consisted of roughly one-third climbing, one-third descent and one-third relatively flat terrain. Well into the 1960s, courses were prepared by soldiers boot-packing or snowshoeing the course, followed by skiers stomping in the parallel tracks through the forests and fields. Competitors typically started at one-minute intervals, disappeared into the woods, only to reappear exhausted, often hours later, covered with frost and mucus. The men’s 50 km cross-country event at the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lakes Placid consisted of a 25 km loop skied twice, and was won by Finland’s Veli Saarinen in 4 hours, 28 minutes.

In my view, the first significant change came at the 1974 Nordic World Championships when Sweden’s Thomas Magnusson won the men’s 30 km on Kneissl synthetic skis. Fiberglass and metal had replaced wooden Alpine skis years earlier, but the faster, plastic bases wouldn’t hold Nordic kick wax. But in wet, heavy, painfully, slow snow, Magnusson took a chance on the fiberglass Austrian skis and dominated the race. The headline in the Oslo paper the next day read something like, “Magnusson wins gold, Norwegian ski industry in peril.”

The next major breakthrough occurred at the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics two years later. Marty Hall, head coach of the U.S. Cross-Country Team recruited Rob Kiesel from Alpine skiing as his assistant. Together they determined that it was possible to wax the tips and tails of the new fiberglass skis for speed with Alpine wax, restricting the much slower cross-country kick wax to a short segment under the athlete’s foot. This made the skis of the Americans faster than those of their European rivals and certainly contributed to Bill Koch’s memorable silver medal in the 30 km, America’s first, and only Olympic medal in Nordic skiing until Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins struck gold in PyeongChang.

Following the success of the Innsbruck Olympics, expectations were high for U.S. Nordic skiers at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. With a theoretical “home court advantage,” Bill Koch’s 13th in the men’s 50 km and Lyle Nelson’s 19th in the biathlon 10 km sprint fell short of the results which the public had been led to expect.

Discouraged, Koch elected to ski the international ski marathon circuit the following year rather than the Nordic World Cup. There, on trails groomed wide by Alpine-area Sno-Cats for thousands of citizen racers, he observed elite competitors pulling away from the throng by putting one ski in the set track and pushing off, skating-style with the other. He quickly mastered this marathon-skate technique and began to experiment by skating with both skis. When he returned to the World Cup circuit a year later, he threw the Nordic world into turmoil by abandoning the relatively slow kick wax altogether and skating entire courses on skis waxed purely for speed. The result of Koch’s persistence and innovation was a cumulative World Cup victory for the season, America’s first in cross-country skiing.

U.S. biathlete John Morton racing at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. (Courtesy photo)

When the dust (or more accurately, snow) finally settled, Nordic skiing had two disciplines, classic (the traditional kicking and gliding) and freestyle (skating). Because biathlon was already complicated enough with skiing and shooting, they decided to go with skating as their designated technique, as did Nordic Combined. In a type of mutual re-enforcement cycle, the use of large, Sno-Cat-type grooming machines on cross-country trails, which originally made the evolution of the skating technique possible, became a requirement once skating was accepted as a part of the sport.

Enter television. The first Winter Olympics to be televised were the 1956 Games in Cortina, Italy, and it quickly became apparent how powerful the new medium could be. Figure skating, ice hockey and ski jumping immediately gained popularity, largely because they were relatively easy to cover. Alpine skiing, bobsled and Nordic skiing lagged behind because they were more difficult and expensive to film. The sports favored by TV prospered, enjoying increased funding from sponsors and a wave of young Olympic hopefuls. Meanwhile, those sports that were less telegenic scrambled to make their events more appealing to the camera. Nordic skiing and biathlon added mass-start and pursuit format events, making it easy for spectators to see who was winning. In terms of spectator interest, biathlon had the advantage of the shooting range. With the adoption of the modern, knock-down targets and television cameras’ abilities to zoom in on an athlete’s targets as he/she is shooting, the popularity of the sport took off. In recent years, biathlon has become the most-watched winter sport in Europe with World Cup events rivaling the popularity of Monday Night Football in America.

In cross-country, one of the unintended consequences of the skating revolution was a focus on upper-body strength, which in turn, led some athletes to abandon kick wax in classic events and double pole the entire course, especially in the shorter, sprint races. This led the FIS (the international governing body for skiing) to require tougher courses with more challenging climbs.

Finland’s Iivo Niskanen after winning the men’s 50 k classic mass start at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: FlyingPointRoad)

As a result, what we saw in PyeongChang for both cross-country and biathlon, were trails 30-feet wide, capable of accommodating three skaters, side by side (without obstructing each other), with steeper climbs and faster, more challenging descents. Aside from the spacious start/finish stadiums, the traditional one-third of relatively flat terrain has disappeared. There was also an effort to loop the trails back within sight of the spectators so that they saw more than just the start and finish of the events. For example, the men’s 50km, perhaps the most iconic of the cross-country events, was conducted on two, 4.16 km loops which brought the competitors through the stadium, in front of the cheering crowd a dozen times. The men’s 50 km classic in PyeongChang was won by Finland’s Iivo Niskanen in a time of 2 hours, 8 minutes (less than half the time it took for his countryman to complete the same distance in 1932 at Lake Placid).

Perhaps the most dramatic change, was the scheduling of many of the Nordic skiing events at night (which allowed them to be televised live in Europe and the eastern U.S. at a reasonable hour). In addition to the expense of lighting and minimizing the number of TV camera platforms, another motivation for shorter ski loops is the growing need, thanks to climate change, to cover the entire trail with machine-made snow. Early in the winter the biathlon and cross-country courses were blanketed with a deep layer of machine-made snow, enough to survive warm temperatures and thaws well beyond the Olympic schedule in February.

While there have been advancements and technological improvements in other Winter Olympic sports, I can think of none more dramatic than what we’ve experienced in Nordic skiing. From a single biathlon event held at the 1960 Squaw Valley Games, there were 10 biathlon competitions on the schedule in PyeongChang. With the advent of the skating technique, fiberglass skis and fluorocarbon waxes, times for cross-country events have been cut in half in less than a generation. Thanks to machine-made snow, the 2022 Winter Olympic Games will be hosted by Beijing, China, a city previously not known for winter sports. And through the development of LED lighting and high-definition television, the excitement of Nordic skiing events can be broadcast live, in prime time, to homes around the world.

*****

John Morton has participated in ten Winter Olympic Games as either an athlete, a coach, the Biathlon Team Leader, Chief of Course or, more recently as a spectator. He has published two books and numerous articles dealing with Nordic skiing.

After 11 years as Head Coach of Men’s Skiing at Dartmouth College, he founded Morton Trails, and has spent the past 28 years designing more than 220 recreational trails and competition venues across the country. He currently has projects underway in a dozen U.S. states as well as two projects in China. More information regarding his trail design work can be found at www.mortontrails.com. He lives with his wife Kay, at the end of a dirt road in Thetford, VT, surrounded by trails. 

John Morton, U.S. biathlete (Courtesy photo)

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