The “Biathlon auf Schalke” two-person mixed relay show race in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, has become a Christmas holiday break fixture on the winter sports calendar. Many biathletes are in awe of the event, featuring a temporary ski course in and around a massive domed arena that usually serves as the home pitch for the Bundesliga soccer club Schalke 04, along with a raucous atmosphere in a sold-out venue and millions watching the broadcast live on TV in several countries.
It’s no real surprise that some living legends of the sport would pick the frantic event that brings biathlon from the mountains to the city as the final race for their storied careers.
In 2018 in its 17th season and with 46,421 fans in attendance, no North American team was represented among the ten invited teams.
The event on Saturday evening mainly drew its fascination from being billed as the final race in the long and successful athletic careers of Ole Einar Bjørndalen of Norway, age 44, and Darya Domracheva of Belarus, 12 years his junior. Combined, the husband-and-wife team could display 12 Olympic gold medals in their personal trophy case, to name just one of their many achievements. By their own admission in a series of interviews with German TV host network ZDF and other broadcasters before, during and after the event, the day certainly was an emotional highlight for Bjørndalen and Domracheva.
“It’s just fantastic, vielen vielen Dank, thank you so much for your support, you are the best!” Domracheva hollered in a fun language mix in an interview with ZDF after the race, drawing a big cheer when her words echoed through the arena via the public address system.
“You couldn’t have dreamed it [better],” her husband Bjørndalen also added in German. “This is incredible, so many people … I never experienced fans as good as this in my life. Thanks again Schalke, this is incredible!”
First World Team Challenge Victory for Italy
In terms of the athletic merit of the event, the 2018 edition saw the first victory in the history of this competition for an Italian team, with current International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup women’s total score leader Dorothea Wierer successfully pairing up with teammate Lukas Hofer.
Over the course of the evening, the Italian pairing turned out to be an ideal combination of the fastest shooter on her race legs and the fastest skier on his. The duo narrowly won the “first half” mass start race of the event which was followed by a 30-minute intermission. Wierer and Hofer also created a convincing lead in the pursuit, which was featured as the “second half” of the evening’s racing.
But their victory was briefly in doubt when Hofer missed three targets in his final standing stage — a bit unusual on a range with no wind influence. Having to circle the penalty loop (though shorter than in regular World Cups) and now on tired legs, the three penalties allowed Germany’s clean-shooting Simon Schempp – who raced with his fellow national team member and girlfriend Franziska Preuß – to catch up to Hofer on the final lap that meandered through a “winter village” concourse around the arena.
“I knew [Lukas] is super on skis, but when he missed three that was still becoming pretty suspenseful,” Wierer laughingly remembered the situation in an interview with ZDF after the race, according to a translation. “But luckily that triggered a little bit of adrenaline.”
Hofer slowed down on the winding 1.3-kilometer course that provided few opportunities for overtaking other skiers before coming back into the main arena where he began to push hard on the only notable straight section along the shooting range. He managed to create a small gap between himself and Schempp and defended that to the finish line to secure the victory in a time of 33:23.6 minutes. Schempp finished 1.2 seconds behind.
“My knees were trembling like a sewing machine,” Hofer said about his problems in the final shooting stage. “Luckily it somehow still worked out fine. I had to ski a tactical final loop, and it’s just great to finally stand at the top of the podium.”
“It’s just a grandiose event,” Schempp said, seemingly not minding the narrowly lost victory (and sponsored car prize). “It’s so incredibly fun to race here in front of such an audience. And when a German team is also in the mix in front, that creates such an atmosphere … That gives you back a lot as an athlete. Just a lot of fun.”
“You really feel like a soccer player with so many people watching,” Wierer added. “Even if you are just trying to have a conversation, it’s so loud you hardly understand anything with all this noise. And it’s great that everyone is being cheered for. Really cool.”
Third Place for the Biathlon Legends
But the real story of the night unfolded a little behind the race for the top of the podium.
In the first event of the evening, Bjørndalen had proven once more that he still ‘got it’, winning a shootout competition to determine the start order against a host of athletes known as fast and accurate shooters.
The semi-retirees Bjørndalen and Domracheva initially struggled a bit with the speed of the athletes still active week to week on the World Cup. Although they were able to hold their own and finished the event’s first half in third place, 6.1 seconds behind Italy and 2.7 seconds behind the French team of Anaïs Bescond and Emilien Jacquelin.
“The course is not so difficult, but when you are in a bad shape it becomes difficult,” Bjørndalen told broadcaster ZDF at halftime, according to a translation. “We didn’t prepare so well, though Darya is still strong but I am flailing a bit in the skiing. Maybe next round will be better.”
Despite admitting he had prepared for the event with a brief training camp in Norway and then a course inspection a day before most competitors had arrived at the venue, the athlete nicknamed “the cannibal” for eating up gaps to other athletes on the course in the prime of his career had some problems keeping speed with the fastest skiers on Saturday.
Domracheva was able to hold up well on the range and course. With her signature elegant ski technique she kept right behind Germany’s currently best-ranked World Cup athlete Preuß on a loop, and stuck within viewing distance of the fast skiing Wierer. With a series of cleaned targets, Domracheva and Bjørndalen managed to keep themselves in podium contention and at one point even maneuvered into the lead, to the joy of the spectators who cheered for them at least as loud as for the German home teams.
Then came the final exchange to the men, which required athletes to shoot a standing stage before skiing another full loop.
“It was mega-cool to watch the final leg, very exciting,” Preuß told ZDF, according to a translation. “I believe everyone watching today saw how the suspense was bubbling up again. That’s how you wish a race should be.”
Bjørndalen had incurred one penalty in his final shooting and skied back on the main course in third position behind Hofer and Schemp. But just a few seconds back, Benedikt Doll, who formed an “injury replacement” second team for Germany together with Denise Herrmann, managed to catch up and pass the Norwegian on the final lap. Being aware that a fourth place just off the podium for the final race for the biathlon star would be an anticlimactic result, Doll waited a few meters before the finish line for the man who he considers his biathlon idol. Doll then grabbed and lifted up Bjørndalen’s arm before skiing into the finish side by side. Intentional or not, Bjørndalen slid his ski boot over the line 0.1 seconds ahead of Doll.
“It was a very nice gesture. It is impressive that he does it at home. Thank you very much,” Bjørndalen told Norwegian broadcaster NRK about Doll’s actions, according to a translation. During the victory ceremony, he and Domracheva then called Doll up to the podium and hung their awarded medals around his neck, who seemed to reluctantly accept the honor.
Bjørndalen will retire as the winningest biathlete of all time, following a 25-year career that is a rare achievement in any endurance sport. To honor Bjørndalen, ZDF showed some old footage and interviews from early in his athletic career in the lead-up to the race.
Bjørndalen amassed eight Olympic gold medals of 13 total Olympic medals, 20 IBU World Championship golds of 45 total championships medals, and 95 World Cup wins with an additional World Cup win in cross-country skiing. Even France’s current biathlon star Martin Fourcade would have to keep competing for numerous years to have any chance at matching those numbers. Bjørndalen’s Olympic record is only surpassed by fellow Norwegian cross-country skiing star Marit Bjørgen.
Domracheva has four Olympic and two World Championship gold medals to her name, most recently anchoring the women’s relay to the gold medal for Belarus at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. She told ZDF in an interview that she considers the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, to be the peak of her athletic career, where she won gold in the individual, sprint and pursuit disciplines.
Domracheva reportedly plans to still race in one more event at home in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, for which 100,000 spectators are expected to show up.
With homes all over Europe in Beitostølen (Norway), Minsk (Belarus) and Obertilliach (Austria), and already active in other career ventures from sports broadcasting to fashion design, the pair told reporters they have not yet decided where they will ultimately settle in the next few years, wanting to decide that once their young daughter is of school age. For now, their only firm plans are to spend New Year’s Eve together in Norway.
Another Farewell: Russia’s Anton Shipulin
Anton Shipulin – Russia’s best biathlete of the last few years – also announced last week that Schalke would be the final race of his international career.
“Thank you very much, dear fans, for your support,” he posted on his social media accounts, according to a translation. “Without you, this adventure would have been more difficult. My victories are also your victories. I will always remember this. You are the best. I hope we will be able to please you once again at the ‘Christmas race’ [World Team Challenge], which will be held on December 29 and will be the final in my professional career.”
Last winter, Shipulin had been among a number of Russian athletes barred by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from starting at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, and claims that to this day he has not yet received a satisfying official explanation by either the IOC or IBU for that blow to his athletic career, according to a fairly rare international interview he gave German home broadcaster ZDF before the race.
Shipulin came back with a vengeance to close out the 2017/18 IBU season, winning the sprint at the World Cup in Kontiolahti, Finland, during the race week immediately following the Olympics.
Overall he has achieved 11 World Cup victories in individual races during his career and won seven medals at World Championships including one gold. Arguably his biggest success, the gold medal from the men’s relay at the 2014 Olympics at home in Sochi, Russia, hangs in the balance as the IOC and International Biathlon Union keep investigating allegations, though for now publicly only against retired teammate Evgeny Ustyugov. Shipulin’s fourth-place mixed relay result from those Olympics has already been voided.
Shipulin conveyed in statements that the international sports bodies and anti-doping authorities have treated his case unfairly during the last two seasons, and the murky situation about his ability to participate in future major sports events combined with the unpleasant prospect to see old results annulled seemingly has exhausted his motivation to keep training and competing.
“I never violated anti-doping rules. I have always completed doping tests in good conscience,” he told ZDF in an interview, according to a translation, reiterating comments he made in social media posts including one from December 13, 2018, in which he called the most recent investigations triggered by Austrian and Italian authorities that reportedly included a team hotel search a “witch-hunt” and “total nonsense”.
On Saturday, the pre-determined final race together with his teammate Ekaterina Yurlova-Percht didn’t quite go as storybook-scripted as for Bjørndalen and Domracheva. Incurring too many penalty laps, the Russian duo was never really in contention for the podium and ended the race in seventh place (+1:48.8).
Yurlova is a veteran of racing at Schalke, winning the event a year ago together with Alexey Volkov, as well as in 2012 when she had teamed up with Shipulin and is currently in full World Cup race mode. Also, like her teammate Shipulin, Yurlova was not allowed by the IOC to start in PyeongChang and reportedly could still be under investigation by international sports and legal authorities. But so far has not been publicly charged with any concrete violations. She is married to an Austrian national, and by living in that country is under the supervision of the local anti-doping agency for much of her off-season.
Shipulin had not yet raced in an IBU event this season, citing a lack of training time in the summer. Though prior to his announcement last week it had been widely expected that he would be back with the Russian team in time for the races in January or at the latest for the World Championships in Östersund, Sweden.
Similar to Domracheva, Shipulin might still make an appearance in a farewell race at home. He told ZDF that he looks forward to now spend time in Tyumen, Russia, with his family, and said he was also happy to have more opportunities for his other sports passion: fly fishing.
Final Results “Biathlon auf Schalke” World Team Challenge 2018
1 Dorothea Wierer / Lukas Hofer (Italy), 33:23.6 minutes
2 Franziska Preuß / Simon Schempp (Germany I) +1.2
3 Darja Domratcheva / Ole Einar Bjørndalen (Belarus/Norway) +24.2
4 Denise Herrmann / Benedikt Doll (Germany II) +24.3
5 Lisa Theresa Hauser / Dominik Landertinger (Austria) +1:04.1
6 Veronika Vítková / Michal Krčmář (Czech Republic) +1:09.5
7 Ekaterina Yurlova-Percht / Anton Shipulin (Russia) +1:48.8
8 Juliya Dzhyma / Artem Pryma (Ukraine) +2:12.3
9 Anaïs Bescond / Émilien Jacquelin (France) +3:11.3
10 Fuyuko Tachizaki / Mikito Tachizaki (Japan) +4:58.0
While the International Biathlon Union has adopted the mixed and single-mixed relay formats as exciting new disciplines in recent years, the “Biathlon auf Schalke” also dubbed the World Team Challenge by the organizer is an invitation-only private event not sanctioned by the IBU (even though there are plans to cooperate in the future, especially regarding a junior competition leading up to the main event), so there were no World Cup points much less internationally recognized medals to win in the race. That will happen towards the end of the season in March at the IBU World Championships in Östersund, Sweden.
The regular IBU World Cup season will continue on January 10th, 2019, in Oberhof, Germany.
Harald has been following cross-country skiing and biathlon for some 20 years since the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville and Lillehammer. A graduate of Middlesex University London and Harvard University, he now lives near the Alps where he likes to go skiing, snowboarding and hiking. He is a former track athlete in middle-distance running, as well as a huge NBA fan.