International Biathlon Union Founded 25 Years Ago Today, Part 1
Twenty-five years ago today, at the Edwardian International Hotel at Heathrow Airport outside London, 24 National Federations signed the Memorandum of Association of the International Biathlon Union (IBU). With their signatures on a piece of parchment paper, the IBU formally came into existence. That impetus spurred the already growing sport from the four disciplines of sprint, individual, team and relay at six World Cup venues to the seven disciplines of today at nine venues each season.
This traditional sport that began with military roots and multiple shooting ranges deep in the forest has been transformed by innovations to make it more spectator and television friendly. As the sport changed technically, the smiling faces of personable, accessible athletes transformed it into a media darling.
Political Action Leads to IBF (IBU)
Biathlon had long been a part of the UIPMB (Union International Pentathlon Moderne Biathlon). Over the years, there was a growing dissatisfaction with the development of biathlon, its underrepresentation on the UIPMB Board and generally with how biathlon was handled with the multi-sport organization. That dissatisfaction led the biathlon camp to think about a separate international winter sports federation as far back as the early 1980s. As with any political movement, it took many years for this to truly turn into action. By the UIMPB meeting in November 1992 in Aix-Les-Bains, France, the wheels were in motion with a proposed constitution for the “International Biathlon Federation” in the works and heated votes in both the biathlon and modern pentathlon sections to form separate organizations.
The next biathlon congress at the World Championships in Borovetz, Bulgaria sealed the deal, approving the constitution and setting up the London meeting that would bring the IBU to life.
The fledgling federation although separate, remained a part of the umbrella group. It took until September 25, 1998 when the IBU formally separated from the UIPMB. With that withdrawal, the International Olympic Committee recognized the IBU as an International Olympic winter sports federation. A year later, the IBU formally legalized its official seat in Salzburg, where it remains today.
Innovations, JWCH, Future Star
From the first IBU World Cup at Bad Gastein onward, innovations in the sport came fast and furiously once the IBU was in control of its own destiny; the 1996-97 season was very important in many ways. The IBU Junior World Championships made its debut in February 1997 at Forni Avoltri, Italy with fairly small fields. The women’s sprint winner was soon to become a well-known Olympic and World Champion, Andrea (Burke) Henkel.
New competitions showed up in the form of pursuit and mass start, while the Team format had its last hurrah at the IBU World Championships in Osrblie. There were suddenly more competitions that season with the World Cup schedule growing from six to eight.
Nine World Cups
The last season in the 20th century saw the World Cup schedule jump to three trimesters and the nine World Cups that comprise each season today. The IBU WCH in Oslo also ended up being split, like the previous year, but for a different reason, fog. The men’s relay was cancelled when they came to the shooting range to face nothing but a wall of dense fog. The competition was later held in Lahti.
Marketing and Television Exposure
While all of this was happening in the stadiums, the IBU was working behind the scenes. Marketing agreements, television contracts and sponsorships increased. The IBU’s partnership with the European Broadcast Union that started back in 1993 assured that the sport received weekly television exposure in the sport’s biggest markets, adding to biathlon’s popularity.
Technical Committee and Mixed Relay
The discipline changes and schedule improvements came from the IBU Technical Committee that consistently worked to make the sport better, safer and both athlete and fan friendly. Never satisfied to sit on past achievements, this group brought the mixed relay to life, giving it a World Championship moniker in 2005, but as an event apart from the WCH. At the 2007 IBU WCH in Antholz, it took its place at the WCH venue. The mixed relay discipline was a completely new concept that has been adapted by many other winter sports and is now being tested even in the very traditional sport of track and field.
Development into Asia
2008 said a lot about biathlon development, an ongoing goal of the IBU: to spread the sport around the world and support developing nations. The first major international biathlon competition in Asia since the 1998 Nagano OWG was held at the future Olympic venue, Alpensia Biathlon Center in Pyeongchang. The sprint winner was a man who was there this year for the OWG, winning Silver and Bronze medals, Mr. Svendsen.
Support for Developing Nations
Part of the IBU’s ongoing development strategy, beyond expanding the schedule beyond Europe is support for developing nations. Every year, this shows up in the form of equipment support for teams with limited resources, development camps for younger athletes and coaches around the world, an expanded IBU Cup program and most recently the IBU Junior Cup circuit. Unlike in 1993, when the sport was Europe-centered, except for Canada, the USA and Japan, today there are biathletes from far-flung locales like Brazil, Mongolia, Greenland, China and many other nations on the starting line in IBU competitions. The IBU currently boasts 56 member nations.
Part 2 tomorrow will take a quick look at some of the amazing athletes and their accomplishments that have driven the sport to ever higher heights over the past 25 years.