Monday, February 7, 2011

Biathlon World Cup in Northern Maine

Biathlon, such a popular televised sport in Europe that it's sometimes called Europe's Super Bowl, is little known in the United States, but that is something a dedicated group of coaches, athletes, and volunteers in Aroostook County are working to change. Biathlon combines cross-country skiing and target shooting, a pairing that seems random until you consider its roots among the infantries of Scandinavia. Although those enthusiasts who first promoted biathlon for the winter Olympics talked about its origins in winter hunting, in fact it began a few centuries ago as a competition between Swedish and Norwegian soldiers guarding a border.

This past weekend, Leo, Damian and I flew up to Presque Isle, Maine, not far from the Canadian border, to see a World Cup competition in biathlon. There are only three World Cup certified competition courses in North America at the moment. Two are in Aroostook County, Maine, and the third is in Vancouver, too far from Europe to be convenient as part of the World Cup tour. This week the athletes and coaches and waxers descended on Presque Isle; next weekend they'll be even farther north in Fort Kent, Maine.

In a biathlon competition, skiers race around a course of 2-3 kilometers, arrive at a shooting range, and shoot at five targets the size of a coffee saucer. They usually make four race circuits with shooting followed by one final circuit sprinting to the finish line. Missing a shooting target is penalized either with time or with a small additional loop to ski for each target missed. Skiers shoot two of their four sets from a prone position and two sets standing.

At the Presque Isle Northern Heritage Center, the stands are set up at the shooting range, but by walking around to the lodge balcony you can also see the start; by walking along a catwalk you can stand on a bridge under which the skiers pass as they race around the course. Spectators cheer indiscriminately for competitors of all nationalities. For some reason, fans also ring cowbells. When a shooter hits the target, the bells ring; when a shooter misses, you can hear a collective sigh.

What gives biathlon its excitement is the shooting. A skier may have fought her way to the front of the pack, but one missed shot suddenly gives the person behind her a chance to take the lead. Skiing at higher speed leads to a higher heart rate and a greater chance of missing a shot. These factors, combined with vagaries of wind and weather, make frequent lead changes an expected part of the game. During the women's pursuit yesterday, the wind came up and threw almost all the athletes off their shots. At one end of the shooting range, flags billowed eastward; at the other end, the flags fluttered westward. Only in the middle was there relative calm, and that was probably delusory.

Still, my readers may wonder, why this sudden interest in biathlon? The truth is, I'm very proud of biathlon in Maine because the trails, the lodges, and the Maine Winter Sports Center that runs them are a creation of the Libra Foundation, founded by my mother. Libra is dedicated to improving the life of Maine residents, and two of our areas of focus are the well-being of young people and economic development. Owen Wells, our visionary president, looked at Aroostook County and determined that its most reliable assets were potatoes (we helped turn around a farmer-owned packaging company called Naturally Potatoes) and snow. Northern Maine had a Scandinavian heritage and a lost tradition of cross-country skiing; Owen proposed that we try to bring that tradition back by creating the Maine Winter Sports Center. We hired great people, starting with Andy Shepard, who has built a constituency for skiing in Maine towns. We built lodges and world class trails at two venues and other trails at high schools across Aroostook County. We brought in European coaches, and we started a training program.

The US team still has a way to go before it can truly challenge the Europeans, but the tradition is building. Schoolchildren who otherwise might have spent the winter vegetating indoors are getting outside and training for a sport where they can excel. And Maine is benefiting from the international visitors, the publicity, and the television revenue that comes from hosting some of the world's most popular sporting events, even on Super Bowl weekend.

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