The "usual suspects” have already been identified led by the Norwegian men and French women. They will not win everything.
Although defending IBU World Champions Hanna Oeberg and Sebastian Samuelsson did not have great seasons so far, do not count them or their Swedish teammates out. Last season like this year, Oeberg had a single podium before Oberhof and yet won 15 km Individual and Mass Start Gold plus Sprint Silver. Samuelsson was podiumless same as this year, yet won Mass Start Gold and two Bronze medals. Both have the talent and experience to contend.
Martin Ponsiluoma has been close to the podium all season with multiple top eight finishes; another medal like his Mass Start Silver in Oberhof is not out of the question.
Potential upsetter Elvira Oeberg has the wheels, a win and a couple additional podiums this season but her shooting has been sub-par. After missing most of Oberhof 2023, she comes to NMNM highly motivated. For good measure, throw in sharpshooting Oberhof double medalist Linn Persson and Mona Brorsson, giving Sweden the ingredients for relay and mixed relay medals.
The Germans, out of the Oberhof 2023 pressure cooker with a fast start this season, will be in the medal hunt. Benedikt Doll has two sprint wins; the relay team has not missed the podium and any of the other men like Justus Strelow with his gaudy 94% shooting or Philipp Nawrath are medal candidates.
Franziska Preuss seems primed for a run at the medals: career-best 91% shooting, solid on the tracks and never out of the top 9 all season. Watch for her in the four-stage competitions where she has two podiums in the Vysočina Arena. Teammate Vanessa Voigt shot 60 times, closing 60 targets in Antholz; she is on the contenders list.
Defending Women’s Relay World Champions Italy, i.e. Lisa Vittozzi and Co. have yet to finish higher than fourth this season while Norway and France have won twice, with Sweden on the podium four times. Adding in the Swiss squad makes the women’s relay a potential battle royale, with the medals likely determined by the team that masters the shooting range.
Beyond the biggest medal contenders are a few wild cards. Atop the women’s list is Lena Haecki-Gross, coming off an outstanding week in Antholz: career-first win, third in the mass start and fourth in the mixed relay. Norwegians Karoline Offigstad Knotten and Juni Arnekleiv have been on the podium this season and seem poised for big breakthroughs.
On the men’s side, the French men’s team, in the midst of their longest individual podium drought in more than 20 years is the wild card. Quentin Fillon Maillet shot clean but ran out of gas in the final loop of the Antholz Mass Start, but his fourth place was a season-best. As defending Relay World Championships, the French foursome will need to dig deep to retain that title.
That NMNM shooting range will play a big part in the medal decisions. It features a very long flat approach, plenty of meters to recover, but still requires some extra power due to its length. The range itself is frequently windy with crosswinds and gusts into the firing line. The long-term weather prognosis shows many windy days and mixed precipitation, complicating shooting even more.
The renovated and updated Vysočina Arena and surrounding tracks are always packed with raucous crowds, with up to 30,000 anticipated at times during the Championships. The bowl shape amplifies the crowd noise more than any other venue. Veterans feed off this atmosphere, but some less experienced athletes might find this a distraction.
The crowds will cheer the loudest for the home team Czechia regardless of their results. It has been a tough season for the home team with no podiums to date. The women showed promise with a good shooting performance in the Ruhpolding relay; the 6th place mixed relay in Antholz was equally promising. These two competitions are likely their best opportunities to make the crowd cheer even louder.
The opening mixed relay is less than 48 hours away, get ready for a wild ride!
It’s biathlon; anything can happen!
Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni, Vianney Thibaut, Nordic Focus