Biathlon Returns to Soldier Hollow; 2002 Olympic Venue
International biathlon returns this week to the Soldier Hollow Olympic Biathlon venue 17 years after the competitions at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
OWG Legacy: Alive and Well
The 2002 OWG legacy is alive and well at Soldier Hollow. The venue has never been shut; its paved roller loops providing high-altitude summer training for the US teams in biathlon and cross-country at times, while serving as a regional training center and community recreation area. In the winter it has remained a local destination for cross-country skiing and other winter fun.
High Desert Biathlon
This eighth stop on the BMW IBU World Cup is very different venue from any other in the world. Soldier Hollow is on the eastern slopes of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains on the edge of the high desert in the thin air of 1695 meters. It is completely out in the open, cut out of the side of the valley.
The setting can easily be called spectacular; small foothills surround one side of the shooting range, with a vast ranch-filled valley on the opposite side. The tracks are completely exposed as they were in 2002, with almost every twist and turn visible from the shooting range. Buried in almost a meter of snow, the setting has a feeling of natural perfection.
In 2002, Soldier Hollow hosted both cross-country and biathlon, with the stadiums back-to-back, separated by the tall competition building. Today the setting basically remains unchanged; a small compact stadium area where like Ruhpolding the fans will are so close they can almost feel the athlete’s breath as they pass. The biggest changes for this week’s competitions are the revamped and reimagined tracks that better fit the sport of 2019.
First OWG Pursuits
These Games could be called a new beginning for biathlon. The pursuit was added to the program: a fast-paced, easy-to-understand competition made for television. Every biathlon competition was televised live in the huge domestic USA market for the first-time ever, exposing the sport to an untapped audience. Ironically, the pursuit competitions this Saturday will be exactly 17 years to the day after the 2002 OWG pursuits.
The 2002 OWG biathlon competitions could have easily been called “Ole’s Games” because Ole Einar Björndalen dominated every competition, winning every time he stepped on the tracks. When the dust settled, he was wearing four Gold medals after anchoring the Norwegian men’s relay to Gold. Björndalen's biggest rival over the years, Raphael Poirée, despite winning pursuit Silver and relay Bronze was completely over shadowed by the Norwegian legend.
Yet Björndalen was not the only shining star on the men’s side. The German trio of Ricco Gross, Sven Fischer and Frank Luck all left Soldier Hollow with two medals; each taking an individual medal plus relay Silver.
Kati, Andrea and Magda
On the women’s side, 2002 was almost an all-German affair, highlighted Kati Wilhelm’s breakthrough; she won Sprint Gold, Pursuit Silver; then anchored the German women’s relay to Gold. Just behind in honors was her teammate, Andre Henkel who won the 15K individual and ran the third leg on the Gold-medal relay. Magdalena Forsberg, the World Cup Total Score winner that season won the only Olympic medals of her storied career, claiming 15K and sprint Bronze.
This week’s return to Soldier Hollow will be a new experience for the athletes; biathlon in a pristine natural setting at a venue that resonates history and past Olympic glory.
Competitions start on Thursday, February 14 with the women’s sprint, followed by the men’s sprint on Friday, pursuits on Saturday and the always entertaining mixed relays on Sunday.