After two years of overwhelming dominance, sweeping all three categories, the Norwegians slipped a bit in the 2020/21 season, topping the men’s and mixed relay while the women ended up an uncharacteristic fourth in the World Cup Relay Score. That is how it stood last March. However, the slate is clean for 2021/22 and the question is simple: is there a team that can consistently top the Norwegians or will this Olympic season be more of the same?
The Norwegian foursome of the Boe Brothers, Sturla Holm Laegreid and either Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen or Johannes Dale only won twice, but were never off the podium, regardless the line-up. Most importantly, they walked away with the IBU World Championship title. Whenever the Norwegians stay off the penalty loop (translated shoot well) like in Pokljuka, with eight spare rounds, they will win. They have enough ski speed to outrun a penalty or two. That success does not change this season; if Christiansen’s rollerski speed and spot-on summer shooting carries over to the winter, he sews up the fourth spot and Norway wins any day they wish including Beijing 2022.
France topped Norway twice, 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. Emilien Jacquelin is as good or better than almost anyone on anchor; basically fearless, but everyone in front of him has to do their job.
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 om any given day. Last season, they won at Hochfilzen and finished behind Norway at Pokljuka when it counted most.
The team to watch: 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. Germany needs Philip Horn or Philipp Nawrath, to step up and fill the steady Arnd Peiffer’s spot in their foursome.
Sweden and Germany tied for the World Cup Relay Score last season. The Swedish squad won twice, opening and closing the season, while the German ladies were at their best in the January, peaking with the Silver medal at the IBU WCH. At the same time, the Norwegians frittered away a potentially dominant team with a lot of sloppy shooting, leading to penalty loops. Yet the Norwegians rallied to win at Pokljuka for their third consecutive IBU World Championships title.
Who will be the best in 2020/21? In light of the fact that Beijing 2022 is everyone’s main goal, it could be the defending Olympic Silver medalists Sweden. They consistently shoot well. Mona Brorsson and Linn Persson give them solid sharpshooting legs and the Oeberg sisters are the female version of the Boe Brothers. Elvira will be another year stronger while Hanna is a rock solid anchor or any other place in their lineup.
Of course, the Norwegians cannot be discounted. Just think Marte, Tiril, Ingrid for starters and pick the fourth name. They 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. After not winning the World Cup Relay Score last season, it will be no surprise if the foursome comes out with fire in their eyes, sweeping Sweden and everyone else all the way through Beijing.
The German ladies' 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 key for could be Herrmann. If she shows up with the devastating ski speed of a couple of years ago, plus her better shooting, Germany will be in the mix in every relay.
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.
Once again, it is hard to bet against the Norwegians; they 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. The reality is simple: the Boe brothers, Laegreid for the men and Tiril Eckhoff, Marte Olsbu Roeiseland and Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold are all they need to dominate. Norway will not win every time, again because of extra rounds and penalty loops at times, but no other team is better, period!
France barely edged Sweden in the World Cup Mixed Relay score last season; these two 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. Pair her regularly with Emilien Jacquelin and you have two fiery talents and the one man who is totally unafraid of any Norwegians, especially one with red hair. On the other hand, Sweden has Seb and Hanna, impressive in their own right. Sweden 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. It is still a toss-up, but the calmer, steady Sweden team might have an edge come Beijing time.
The team to watch is: Italy. Last season, they used multiple line-ups, but 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 OWG Bronze medals and want another medal of any color. 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.
Norway is projected to win the most medals at the Beijing Olympic Winter Games, forty-four; the trend is obvious. They are the team to beat in relays and will be better prepared than ever, as will everyone else. Still, a word of caution: expect some surprises and disappointments…A relay team is only as good as the sum of its parts.
Photos: IBU/Manzoni, Thibaut