For the first time ever, an American will preside over international governance of a nordic sport. On Tuesday, the International Biathlon Union (IBU) announced that longtime U.S. Biathlon President and CEO Max Cobb has been named the IBU Secretary General. Cobb will finish up his second term on the IBU Executive Board and leave his post as at U.S. biathlon at the end of September, then begin his new role overseeing international competition, governance, and sport development this October.
The appointment of Cobb as IBU Secretary General marks the culmination of a long career in U.S. biathlon in which he has overseen the organization through stark growth in the sport, success on an international scale for U.S. biathletes, and through unique challenges like hosting the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, where Cobb served as the chief of competition.
On his new appointment, Cobb said in an email with FasterSkier that, “I am really honored to be selected for this position. The chance to serve the sport I love from a different position is really exciting. [Outgoing Secretary] Niklas Carlsson did a fantastic job and the IBU staff is well-structured and very capable.”
Cobb’s journey to overseeing biathlon is one marked by persistent and carefully thoughtful forward-thinking, along with an enduring connection to the nordic community in the United States. A New Englander through-and-through, Cobb competed at Dartmouth College while taking on leadership roles heading up the College’s Outing Club and Biathlon Club. It was the latter that translated into a career, accepting a job opportunity with the U.S. Biathlon Association in 1989. Founded in 1983, U.S. biathlon was still in its nascent, path-finding stages then, looking to build off the successes it had seen concurrently with U.S. skiing more broadly in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There were flashbulb glimpses that the U.S. could bring the popular discipline of biathlon to a new continent, a bronze in the women’s team relay event at the 1984 World Championships (Holly Beatie, Julie Newman, and Kari Swenson), and an individual silver for Josh Thompson in 1987 (20 k Individual). Without real infrastructure to develop the sport however, U.S. biathlon would have to reset towards the long-term goal of getting more talented athletes, in more places, into the sport before success would come again.
In 1992 Cobb took up that challenge as U.S. Biathlon’s Program Director, and since has been the steady hand guiding the sport between the punctuated successes that usually draw attention. First there was a gold medal at Junior World Championships in 1997 with Jay Hakkinen, then later the World Championship medals – first a silver with Tim Burke in 2013 (20 k Individual), then gold and silver with Lowell Bailey and Susan Dunklee, respectively, in 2017 (20 k Individual and 12.5 k Mass Start), and again a silver with Susan Dunklee in 2020 (7.5 k Sprint). In between, the development of training sites from Soldier Hollow (concurrent with the 2002 Salt Lake City Games) to Fort Kent, Maine (which, tucked away in the most rural corner of a rural state, improbably hosted a World Cup in 2004).
Those highlights represent a consistent attitude and approach by biathletes across the United States put into sum by their consistent leader, as Cobb reflected, “The biggest take away is challenges can’t keep you from pursuing ambitious objectives. Collaboration, planning and determination to achieve a bold vision often overcomes more than we could ever imagine. Teamwork aligned around a common vision is powerful, but it takes time and constant tending. Today, Americans are regularly bringing home medals – something that seemed impossible three decades ago.”
Now tasked with scaling his approach to an international scale, Cobb sees a different set of challenges which stand in tandem, not separated, from the world’s geopolitics and concerns. “I think the most immediate challenge [this winter] will be the high cost of energy in Europe that will impact every part of international sport; from travel for the athletes to the energy needed to host major events,” said Cobb. His solution follows a pattern he’s already helped develop, with the IBU being on the forefront of sport sustainability – they were the first international winter sports governing body to meet the UN’s planning requirements to go carbon neutral by 2050 last year. “Our sport gives us a platform from which we can help influence millions to live lives that are climate friendly, we all have to act more sustainably in our daily lives and at our events.”
Cobb is also looking to prioritize confronting the challenge of resource disparity that is inhibiting parity in the sport – a persistent problem across the broader nordic disciplines. “[There’s a] big technology and training gap between the very biggest nations who have armies of ski tech and coaches and middle-sized teams with just a few hard-working staff. As this gap grows it could endanger the diverse set of nations that can win medals, [which] has been a hallmark of international biathlon for many decades.”
In confronting all of the challenges, Cobb said his hope is, “To serve the athletes well, both those in the sport today and those who need a chance to discover the wonderful challenge that [biathlon] is – two opposing disciplines with an unforgiving clock marking every second to the tenth.”
Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.