January’s Big Three: Oberhof, Ruhpolding and Antholz
January and the New Year mean one thing in biathlon: three weeks of biathlon action at the traditional venues in Oberhof, Ruhpolding and Antholz. All three have huge stadiums that will be packed to capacity with enthusiastic, knowledgeable crowds cheering loudly from start to finish, followed by hours of fans celebrating well into the night.
Beyond the crowds, the deafening noise and the party atmosphere, each of the January BMW IBU World Cups offers its own unique perspective on biathlon.
Oberhof: Fog, Flags, Wall of Sound
Oberhof opens the month and the New Year. The DKB Ski Arena sits a couple of kilometers outside of this rather quiet village, once well-known as a health resort. The fishhook shaped stadium, with a capacity of 10,000 spectators is filled hours before the competitions by the hundreds of tour busses that snake their way each day up to Oberhof. The stadium sits well above the tracks that drop off into the Thüringen forest. Thousands more fans crowd along those tracks, frequently so close that the athletes seem to be dodging their enormous waving flags. Spectators in the tribunes get a panoramic view of the long stadium approach, the penalty loop and shooting range. Other than the hooked part of the stadium, spectators are far removed from the shooting range. On foggy days which are frequent in Oberhof, the shooting range and video board are sometimes obliterated by the misty clouds. Yet, whether clear or foggy, the Oberhof fans create this amazing wall of sound when the athletes head down the long straight stretch into the stadium and shooting range. The truly deafening noise gets even louder when a German athlete is headed for the podium.
Extended New Year’s Celebration
After and also during the competitions, the party atmosphere reigns with happy fans imbibing in liters of beer while downing the famous Thüringen sausages. Once the stadium empties, the party continues along the narrow snow-covered streets and in the big party tent in the village center. The four days of competition in Oberhof, with the huge crowds seems like an extended New Year’s Celebration.
Big Stadium Atmosphere
For the athletes, Oberhof holds many challenges. The fog is almost a given which in many cases, means the weather is not so cold, so it may rain, making the steep tracks slushy and icy on turns. However at the same time, it can be bitterly cold and snowy, still complicating life on the tracks. Winds can cut across the shooting range, giving the penalty loop plenty of business. The athlete’s day in Oberhof is seldom easy, yet everyone who has ever competed there simply loves the big stadium and its atmosphere.
Ruhpolding: Bavarian Atmosphere, Intimate Arena
When Oberhof ends, the biathlon circus slips south into Bavaria to Ruhpolding and the Chiemgau Arena. If Oberhof’s hallmark is the tall pine forests of Thuringia, then Ruhpolding is characterized by the valley stadium surrounded by Chiemgau Alps. The ever-changing Chiemgau Arena sits 7 km from the traditional Bavarian village with the narrow main street of cafes, bakeries, hotels and shops. The Arena can hold 13,000 spectators in the tribunes and another 10,000 on the tracks. Unlike Oberhof, the Chiemgau Arena is almost intimate, with the first rows for spectators just above the finish straight and 25 meters from the shooting range. The tracks extend from either end of the shooting range and wind behind the tribune. Most of the viewing area along the tracks is fairly open. The mostly German crowd is just as enthusiastic and noisy as Oberhof, but yet it has a different feel, almost a light-hearted Oktoberfest atmosphere. Just as in Oberhof, every German biathlete is a god or goddess in the eyes of the fans; they get the loudest cheers and hear their name thousands of times each day. Although the busses bring in fans by the thousands, just as many walk at least one direction to the stadium; if they do not stay for the party in the stadium party tent, they head into the village center and Champions Park for entertainment into the wee hours.
Easiest Shooting Range
Compared to Oberhof, the Ruhpolding weather is generally milder. Of course it does rain and snow. The tracks offer challenges, especially the big hills before the stadium and the long sweeping turn just before the stadium and range. However, it has the gentle loop with a couple of bridges behind the tribune on every loop for a bit of less demanding skiing before the climbs. The Chiemgau Arena has one asset that none of the other two January World Cups possess: the shooting range. The range in Ruhpolding is considered the easiest of the whole season. Wind is infrequent and if it is windy, the walls on both sides and its location against a hillside make it virtually calm. The long downhill and flat approach mean plenty of recovery, low-pulse shooting and plenty of targets closed.
Simply Breathtaking Südtirol Arena
January and the second trimester of the BMW IBU World Cup season always closes just a couple of hours south of Ruhpolding, in Antholz. Although in Italy, the German-style atmosphere still prevails in the Südtirol. Like its January cousins, the Südtirol Arena has been improved and enlarged over many years to its current capacity of 9,000 in the tribunes and multiple thousands more on the tracks. This is the most unique of the three stadiums, sitting at the top of Antholz valley at almost 1600 meters. Its single sided tribune sits below majestic snow-capped peaks and is known for the frequent blue-sky sunny days. The only way to describe the scenery at the Südtirol Arena on one of these days is “simply breathtaking.” Virtually every spectator is bussed up the valley to the stadium. They spread into the tribunes, party tent and into the snow-covered meadows above the stadium for the competitions. The main Antholz fun with entertainment, many liters of malt beverage, with an Italian twist happen in the sunshine at the stadium. Although the German team remains a fan-favorite in Antholz, the Italian team rules. The fans love to cheer for the “local kids” like Doro, Luki and Domi who grew up just down the valley and became Olympic medalists.
January-ending Smile: Sunshine, Mountains, Food
The location of the Südtirol Arena is a complete change for the athletes from Oberhof and Ruhpolding. The high-altitude means some will struggle with the thin air; the snow is different and usually never as moisture-filled as in Germany. The tracks are challenging as they wind through deep forest into open fields until sweeping down into the stadium. The final uphill into the stadium leaves little time to grab some extra oxygen and recover before shooting. Shooting clean can be hard at Antholz. Yet, even on a bad day, every competitor will say, “I love Antholz, the sunshine, the mountains and the food.” After three weeks of big-stadium competitions with raucous atmospheres, January always ends with a smile and this year will be no different.