Can anybody disrupt Norway's biathlon dominance?

Norway, with 38 wins last season, will start the Olympic season as a favourite on all fronts, but their challengers will not sit still. There are athletes whose burning ambition is as great as JT Boe’s or Tiril Eckhoff’s, and there are nations who can put up a winning relay combination on any given day. But do they have the physical and mental stamina to last four months and Olympic Winter Games in a different time zone on top?

Men: Trying to mix it up with Norwegians and French

Last season’s World Cup Total Score Top Ten included four Norwegians and three of their French rivals. Beyond these seven, it might be up to Sweden’s Sebastian Samuelsson to break up this monopoly. That is where the new season starts with Norway’s JT Boe, Sturla Holm Laegreid, Tarjei Boe, Johannes Dale ready to duke it for dominance with Quentin Fillon Maillet, Emilien Jacquelin and Simon Desthieux.

Top Three Tussle

JT Boe in the 2020/21 season was not the dominant force; Laegreid repeatedly challenged and topped the podium seven times to JT’s four. When the dust settled, JT won for the third consecutive season. He remains the fastest and deadliest on the tracks. Although his shooting dipped from 89% to 84%, even with a mid-season rifle change, range talent remains. Returning to his old rifle set-up during the summer, led coach Siegfried Mazet to tell NRK, “He is much calmer behind his riffle.” Laegreid is humbly confident and knows himself very well. Last season’s mantra remains, “If I just do what I am good at, that is enough to achieve my goals.’ It is not about overachieving: do what you are good at.” Any improvements will make his rivals shake their head in disbelief. Quentin Fillon Maillet wants to upset the Norwegian apple cart. Third in the World Cup Total Score the last two seasons, the top spot remains a goal.

Challengers 

Tarjei Boe, 4th in the World Cup Total Although missed some time with a concussion this fall, but look for him to be in the mix. He will also want his first-ever Olympic individual medal in Beijing.

Johannes Dale has steadily improved in each of his three World Cup seasons, breaking through last season with a win and five additional podiums. Dale is consistently one of the fastest men; standing shooting is his weak link; improvement there will add to his career win total very quickly.

2020/21 was a career season to date for Sebastian Samuelsson: sixth in the Total Score, first career victory, and four IBU WCH medals. His goal was simple, “Starting training, I was really motivated to show that I am better athlete than I was last season.” Goal fulfilled.

Emilien Jacquelin is a rare talent and “wild card” among the challengers. He can shoot like a tornado and hit every target, fly past and bury almost any opponent but sometimes his eagerness to succeed trips him up. Jacquelin knows what it will take to have a super season. “If I am in shape and confident on the skis, I will probably try to stay calmer and be more consistent. In the coming years I want to fight for the Total Score win.”

Women: Everybody will be chasing Tiril

Tiril Eckhoff’s total domination of the 2020/21 BMW IBU World Cup puts her in the driver’s seat when the new season starts. There are several women including teammate Marte Olsbu Roeiseland who could take the number 1 spot away from Eckhoff, but they will have to make big strides to do this. The challengers are closely matched: Franziska Preuss, Hanna Oeberg, Dorothea Wierer, and Lisa Theresa Hauser, all talented enough to battle for supremacy.

Eckhoff set the bar extremely high last winter, racking up an impeccable record of 13 victories, winning two individual gold medals in Pokljuka 2021, not to mention a career high 83% on the shooting range. The victories highlight her biggest talent: aggressive fast skiing, very similar to teammate JT Boe. In the past two seasons, her shooting has gone from shaky to confident. After the Oberhof sprint, Eckhoff commented, “My trainer always says to me you to have much better confidence, because you can win with one mistake. That is something not everybody can do.”

Marte moves up, Another big step for Preuss?

After her spectacular showing at the IBU World Championships 2020 in Antholz, Olsbu Roeiseland finished career-high second in the World Cup Total Score last season with three wins, just as many as the past three seasons. She was commenting in Nove Mesto, “My shape has been good this year, but the shooting has not been good enough. had a lot of almost races, a lot of 4-7 places…” Always fast on the tracks, especially in the last loop, consistent shooting will be the key for her. 

Preuss went from ninth place in the World Cup Total Score in 2018/19 to sixth in 2019/20 to third in 2020/21. Continuing the same pace this season, the next stop is at number one. Consistency was her calling card last season. Despite zero victories, she was in the top ten on nineteen occasions. A new rifle stock has instilled renewed confidence in her standing shooting. Thinking about her goals this season, she admitted that winning the World Cup Total Score is her preference: “You see the whole performance from November to March.”

Challengers: Hanna, Dorothea, and Lisa Theresa 

At the end of last season, eight points separated Hanna Oeberg, Dorothea Wierer and Lisa Theresa Hauser, with two, one, and two wins respectively.

Hanna Oeberg is the defending Olympic champion in the 15 km individual. Two sprints last season increased her chance to become the next Swedish World Cup Total Score winner. Oeberg’s improved ski speed plus her normal 85%+ shooting is a recipe for a great year. She recently said, “What drives me forward is to get better.”

Dorothea Wierer admitted last season that fatigue limited her to a single victory, two second and two third places. However, Wierer shot better in 2020/21 than her two World Cup Total Score winning seasons and she tied with Hauser for the World Cup Individual Score. The Italian has never won an individual Olympic medal and would love a third mixed relay medal, so February is in focus.

Lisa Theresa Hauser’s 2020/21 season was magical. Coming into the season, she had had no individual BMW IBU World Cup podiums. By mid-March, seven podiums, two victories and an IBU World Championship Gold medal topped her resume. She knows what it will take to take another step. “I thought about last season nearly every day in training this summer…I tried to make my shooting more stable. My main goal is to be consistent over the whole season, at the shooting range and on the tracks.”

Men’s relay, no surprise

The foursome of the Boe Brothers, Sturla Holm Laegreid, and Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen, or Johannes Dale won twice last winter and were never off the podium. They walked away with the IBU World Championship title. Whenever they stay off the penalty loop, they will win. France topped Norway twice in 2020/2021, while Sweden and Germany did it once each. The French team had several penalty loop meltdowns with their best team. That inconsistency is their weakness. The Swedish squad is solid and generally shoots well. Sebastian Samuelsson’s spot-on shooting, Ponsiluoma’s ability to go head-to head with anyone give them the chance to win or be in the mix on any given day.

The team to watch is Russia. They were fourth three times last season and third at the IBU WCH. Eduard Latypov runs an impressive anchor leg and Said Karimulla Khalili in the leadoff spot give them stable bookends.

Sweden/Norway women’s relay tussle

Sweden and Germany tied for the World Cup Relay Score last season. At the same time, the Norwegians frittered away a potentially dominant team with a lot of sloppy shooting, leading to penalty loops, but rallied to win at Pokljuka for their third consecutive IBU World Championships title. Who will be the best in 2021/2022? In light of the fact that Beijing 2022 is everyone’s main goal, it could be the defending Olympic Silver medalists Sweden. Mona Brorsson and Linn Persson give them solid sharpshooting legs and the Oeberg sisters are the female version of the Boe Brothers. The Norwegians have the potential to dominate and showed they can rise to the occasion, think Pokljuka. Coach Patrick Oberegger is good at rallying the troops, but they have to execute up to their ability. The German performances in Oberhof, Antholz and at the IBU WCH proved that the Vanessa Hinz, Janina Hettich, Denise Hermann, Franziska Preuss team knows the recipe for success. 

The team to watch is France. The French team really loves relays; they pretty consistently make it onto the podium in championships and generally shoot well. A stronger Anais Chevalier-Bouchet after another year of post-baby training and better shooting by super-anchor Julia Simon are the keys to their success.

Big names dominate mixed relays

Norwegians have more than enough talent to fill the mixed and single mixed relay slots, leaving big names on the sidelines, a luxury any nation would love to have. France and Sweden match up well in the battle for whatever podium spots the Norwegians do not occupy. France’s two single mixed wins (including the IBU WCH Gold) featured Julia Simon; that looks like a good start. Sweden has Samuelsson and Hanna Oeberg, impressive in their own right. It also has the steady-shooting Linn Persson, Elvira and Ponsiluoma for the mixed, whereas France has just-as-good Quentin Fillon Maillet, Simon Desthieux and Chevalier-Bouchet.

The team to watch is Italy. At Nove Mesto, the A Team of Lukas Hofer, Dominik Windisch, Dorothea Wierer and Lisa Vittozzi showed up and voila, second place. This team has two Olympic Bronze medals and want another medal of any colour. If they are on, put Hofer and Wierer in the single mixed and there is potential magic. A realigned training system this past summer might be the perfect recipe for the Italians to have big mixed relay season. 

Photo: Christian Manzoni, IBU

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