Let’s get the big superhero in the room and his more human teammates out the way immediately. JT has been unstoppable: winning eleven of fourteen competitions, undefeated in 2023, shooting confidently and skiing with abandon. According to older brother Tarjei, “He (JT) is at his own level,” while Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen added, after gifting the now famous Incredible Hulk gloves, “he really earned the right to be the real Hulk.” If nothing changes, JT could extend his undefeated streak.
However, there is a small hurdle that stands in his way. Johannes has NEVER won the sprint/pursuit double at any IBU WCH. The last man was the one whose records JT is chasing, Martin Fourcade. Fourcade won both in 2016 and 2012, with Ole Einar Bjoerndalen doing it three times: 2005, 2007 and 2009, and Emil Hegle Svendsen in 2013. This season, JT has four sprint/pursuit doubles, getting number five at the World Champs would be another checkmark on his bucket list. The usual mindset will suffice, ski aggressively from the start, shoot the same way, outski penalties and add two more wins. JT’s Oberhof mantra remains the same.
JT’s teammates are as well positioned for success as he is, except it is more like Silver/Bronze success. Sturla Holm Laegreid, Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen, Tarjei Boe and Johannes Dale have to be at their best on the tricky Oberhof range; one more mistake than JT drops them from contention. Laegreid and Tarjei both have won in Oberhof; Tarjei has more experience there while Laegreid hopes to defend his Pokljuka 20 km individual and mass start titles. Christiansen and Dale spent almost three weeks in Antholz, preparing for Oberhof; the strength gained might be the deciding factor in any medal chase.
The Oberhof shooting range is a tough place to shoot clean. Likewise, the Oberhof track layout is equally tough. By the end of every World Cup there, the legs are screaming; everyone knows exactly how many times they climbed the Birxsteig. These tracks are geared to technical skills and pure power/endurance. Out of the stadium, the downhill is tricky with several technical turns that require caution and patience. These and almost every twist on the tracks creates frequent crashes due to frequent icy conditions. The Birxsteig, well-known for the boisterous in-your-face fans, is best known for its leg-burning climb. After that, the final little kick up just before the stadium has become the spot for one last attack. The long flat stretch into the finish seems easy, but there is no rest, it is all-out work. This might be the hardest finish in the sport, unforgiving after virtually no recovery in the closing stage of every competition.
Those who can tame these tracks include (obviously) JT, Martin Ponsiluoma, Tarjei, Emilien Jacquelin, Laegreid and Benedikt Doll.
Surprises and spoilers are a part of any Championships; this one will be no exception. Giacomel and Hartweg are at the top of the list. The Italian is consistent: solid on the tracks and range, just good enough to capitalize when others make mistakes. Hartweg, already on the podium this season, relies on his excellent shooting. His forte is the four-stage competitions.
Emilien Jacquelin, seeking his third consecutive IBU WCH pursuit title stands out as a potential spoiler. The enigmatic Jacquelin’s trajectory was rising in Antholz; championship competitions energize him. Similarly, Ponsiluoma could upset the Norwegian apple cart. The Swede would love to win back-to-back WCH sprint titles. His skiing has been top-notch all season; Ponsiluoma just needs to shoot like he did in the Ruhpolding mass start and Antholz pursuits.
Beyond this group, there WILL be someone else who confounds all the experts.
The Norwegians are undefeated in relays for over a year. They have a great team with backup depth. They will most likely win, but are human and can fail. Germany and France will be ready to pounce should the Norwegians falter. The German men have been steady, second or third in all four relays so far. They can shoot well; see four spares in Hochfilzen, but they can end up on the penalty loop. The German foursome’s relay success is dependent on steady skiing and staying penalty-free. France has the horses to challenge the Norwegians, but two things have to happen: no penalties and Quentin Fillon Maillet has to zero-zero, spare-free. Third leg Jacquelin did that to stay in close contention in Antholz. If a revived QFM shows up in Oberhof and performs up to his ability, they could make the Norwegians and Germans a tussle.
Final note: if Sebastian Samuelsson and Ponsiluoma go zero-zero, Sweden will be there to pounce should any other team falters.
The German men’s squad for Oberhof is not the German team of a few years ago with big stars, but a group of journeymen who have worked hard and improved enough this year to be relevant once again. The veteran Doll and Roman Rees have both been on the podium. Rees’s shooting propelled him all season, just as Doll’s grittiness and track skills keep him in contention. Coaches Mark Kirchner and Uros Velepec have done an excellent job in preparing this team for their home BMW IBU WCH. Although their medal hopes focused on the relay, but both Rees and 2017 Sprint World Champion Doll could win individual medals.
If things get close, the German fans have the ability to will their heroes to the podium with enthusiastic support on the tracks and in the stadium. Every home team dreams of medals in front of their adoring fans: the time is now for Doll, Rees, Johannes Kuehn, Justus Strelow and David Zobel.
Two days and counting….
Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni, Juliane Walter, Igor Stančík