12 Days until Östersund: Stars Lead the Way for Norway
12 days until the opening of the 2016-17 BMW IBU World Cup season in Östersund and the Norwegian team is counting on the four big stars on the men's squad and their Golden Girl to make this another successful year. Last season, the Norwegian ended their season in a familiar position, at the top of the Nations Cup, winning for the third year in a row and for the fourth time in the past seven years. At the same time, they captured the Men's Relay Cup and were a part of the Mixed Relay Cup. Their success last year and their prospects this year rests squarely on the shoulders of four men: Johannes Thingnes Boe, his brother Tarjei, Emil Hegle Svendsen and the seemingly ageless Ole Einar Bjorndalen. This season they are being guided by two new coaches, Egil Kristiansen and the former French coach Siegfried Mazet. At the same time, the women's hopes all revolve around their IBU World Champion Tiril Eckhoff, their best athlete since Tora Berger retired. She and teammates Fanny Birkeland, Synnøve Solemdal and Marte Olsbu captured the WCH relay title, but even with this accomplishment, the others remain far behind the Golden Girl as the new season approaches.
Johannes has only gotten better each season since he moved to the World Cup team full time back in the 2013-14 season. Coming off multiple IBU World Junior Championships, he won twice at Le Grand Bornand in December 2013 and has never looked back. Since then, he has won 11 times, three of those last season, including his dramatic mass start win at the IBU World Championships in Oslo, topping Martin Fourcade and his teammate Björndalen. The victory harkened what may be the future of biathlon, an athlete who can challenge the almost indomitable Fourcade and beat him. Johannes has always been the big promising talent. Back in 2011, when Tarjei won the Total Score, he admitted that his 17-year-old brother was more talented and going to be a big star. Johannes' talent has never been questioned, but the 23-year-old has been a bit mercurial, with victories and then results far from the podium. Most of the less-than –great results came when he was in and out of the shooting range in the blink of an eye, followed by several penalty loops. Yet, at the end of last season, his shooting was consistently good, with single penalties in 5 of the last 6 competitions of the season. That kind of consistent shooting, with his brilliant ski speed is what it will take to move higher than second in the Total Score this season and in the future.
Last season was a "comeback" year for Tarjei, the 6th in the World Cup Total Score was his best since he won at age 22. Beset with illness and injury periodically in recent seasons, the older Boe brother made it through the whole season. He only had three podiums but was in the top ten on 12 occasions. Unlike the previous season when he won three individual Bronze medals plus Silver and Bronze medals at the IBU WCH in Kontiolahti, he only managed two relay medals in Oslo. However, he was a crucial piece of both the mixed relay Bronze and the men's relay Gold. Coming into this season, he has been bothered with some health issues. After such a steady season last year, his presence is important to the men's team.
The rumors of Emil Hegle Svendsen's demise continue to be greatly exaggerated, taking a bit of liberty with the words of the novelist Mark Twain. Svendsen is a man who likes to win; those have been few and far between in recent seasons. Yet he recently commented that "I do not plan to retire until I am back at the top again." Last year was not his best year, yet he managed 10th in the Total Score. Svendsen was second in the Pokljuka mass start and third in a Norwegian sweep of the Ruhpolding/Oberhof sprint behind the Boe brothers. From that point on, he was almost "missing in action," while skipping the North American World Cups, trying to figure out some health issues and get ready for Oslo. As with any champion, Svendsen came through with a huge Bronze medal in the WCH pursuit and anchored the relay to a Gold medal; pretty good results in a less than perfect season. It remains obvious that Svendsen who owns 80 World Cup podiums, including 38 victories, Olympic and WCH Gold medals, is an extremely talented athlete. He, like Tarjei faced some health issues in the run-up to the new season. However if the 31-year-old gets healthy, he will be back battling for the podium until...
Standing atop the men's relay podium at the IBU World Championships for the 137th time was Ole Einar Björndalen; that is correct. The "King of Biathlon" has 95 individual victories plus 37 relay wins in his storied career. The amazing three individual medals plus the relay Gold last March are just another chapter in his storied career. The medals capped a season that started with a victory in the Östersund 20K and his first Yellow Bib in years. A mid-season slump meant that the most decorated Winter Olympian in history went back to the drawing board, a solitary training camp that brought him to Oslo, fit sharp and focused. Fourcade was actually the only athlete better than Björndalen last March. As the new season approaches, Björndalen remains a force. He modified his training this summer, skipping a period at altitude to remain in Minsk with wife Darya Domracheva for the birth of their daughter. Now with the team, the veteran shot clean in the Norwegian season opener in Sjusjøen, a good sign that could point to another banner year. Until, he finally retires, Björndalen will remain an important of any success for the Norwegian men's team.
Beyond this group of four men, Norway has a group of veterans that can fill in, including Lars Helge Birkeland, Erlend Bjoentegaard and Henrik L'Abee Lund. All have been on the podium at an BMW IBU World Cup, but with four huge stars ahead of them, they will remain as back-ups, hoping for a breakthrough.
Tiril and Co.
Until Tiril Eckhoff won the sprint at the IBU World Championships, it had basically been a hugely disappointing season for the Norwegian women. Eckhoff, who won a mixed relay Gold plus two Bronze medals at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games had just a single podium, in the Ruhpolding mass start. The other highlights for her were a string of fourth and fifth places plus results just inside the top 20. On March 6, everything changed; Eckhoff shot clean, skiing to a 15 second victory over Marie Dorin Habert and instantaneous adoration as Norway's Golden Girl when she donned a Gold jacket for the Flower Ceremony. She was nowhere near the podium in the pursuit and 15K, but with a packed stadium for the women's relay, the magic returned. She tagged, fired ten perfect shots and tagged Marte Olsbu in first position. The inexperienced Olsbu, also at the top of her game nervously used four spares but skied home in the Gold medal spot.
Those two competitions made up for all of the struggles to that point. As the new season approaches, expectations are high for Eckhoff. Her ski speed has never been doubted, but she can be struggle on the shooting range. She recently went through a period of self-doubt, not sure that she wanted to continue, but came out of it. Her second place, with two penalties in Norway's season-opener was promising, however she needs to continue this and be even better. Olsbu who had the first individual podium of her career looks like a solid second woman on the team. However, she recently underwent appendix surgery and is behind schedule. Beyond these two women, Fanny Birkeland and Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold need to come up big this season in order for their team to become competitive again with the likes of Germany, France and the Czech Republic.
Track Record Means More Success
This new season looks like it might be one of "ifs" for Norway: if Johannes shoots well, if Tarjei gets healthy, if Emil returns to his best and if Tiril can find the magic shooting touch. Yet if history means anything; the pride, depth and track record of the Norwegian biathlon program will result in more victories and medals! 12 days until there are some answers!