This weekend’s program is a throwback to 2011 for Oestersund. Although they hosted the season opener in eight of the last 10 years, 2011 was the last time the 20 km/15 km got the ball rolling here (mixed relay was the ice-breaker every other year). Fittingly in an Olympic season, the 2011 winners were two of the most decorated Olympic Winter Games stars of the last decade, Darya Domracheva and Martin Fourcade. Domracheva’s two penalties put her 1:08 ahead of Sweden’s Anna Maria (Nilsson) Uusitalo and 1:41 ahead of the Germany’s Golden Girl Magdalena Neuner. Fourcade’s one penalty and brilliant skiing put 1:54 between him and Czech Republic’s Michal Slesingr and Simon Schempp; both matched Fourcade on the range. On Saturday, Chinese Women’s Coach Domracheva will be on the tracks supporting her team; Fourcade is also retired, but 2011 eighth and fifteenth placers from Jakov Fak and Simon Eder return for encores.
The next two days offer a 2021/22 season snapshot, the long, grueling individuals followed by sprints the next day; opposite ends of the biathlon spectrum. The five-loop 15 km/20 km on Saturday are shooting competitions with skiing; accurate shooting and well-paced skiing carry the day. Clean-shooting Sturla Holm Laegreid and Dorothea Wierer won last year. The Swedish National Biathlon Arena’s tough tracks are challenging to be polite, a long uphill out of the stadium, rolling loops in the forest and a technical downhill range approach call for every bit of summer endurance. The Sunday sprints are just that: sprints, pacing is out the door; three loops at full speed plus fast-cadenced shooting where one penalty loop can mean a podium miss, unless your name is Johannes Thingnes Boe or Tiril Eckhoff. Last year in them opening Kontiolahti sprint, JT Boe, flying around the tracks, shot clean to win while Sebastian Samuelsson, no slouch on skis missed a single shot to finish second.
Winter is in full swing in mid-Sweden. Conditions look favorable both days: cold minus 6-8C with lighter winds both days and icy, hard-packed tracks with a mix of stored, manmade and natural snow. Lighter winds are a blessing: Oestersund’s range is known for swirling strong shifting winds.
Thirty-six national federations with 154 women and 160 men registered for this opening salvo of the BMW IBU World Cup season. All of the big names are in the mix; expect all to be pushing for the podium this weekend. Although everyone wants to peak for Beijing 2022, these first starts are important confidence builders for the long season ahead.
Sweden’s Mona Brorsson echoed the thoughts of many. “It does not matter how much experience you have, every year you have doubts before the first competitions. No matter where you are at, how good your training has been…but that is what makes the start of the season exciting every time!”
Crystal-balling the individuals and sprints, all eyes will be focused on the Norwegian, Swedish and French teams, with contenders galore. The last couple of weeks featured two big tune-ups: Norway, France and Czech Republic in Sjusjoen while Sweden and Italy tangled in Idre. Thinking about Saturday’s women’s 15 km individual, all eyes are on the Yellow-bib wearing Tiril Eckhoff and her teammates Marte Olsbu Roeiseland and Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold. Eckhoff has never excelled in this discipline, with only one career podium. Her shooting as well as Olsbu Roeiseland was off in the Sjusjoen mass start, won by clean-shooting Tandrevold. Coach Patrick Oberegger at the time suggested both will be better by this week. Favorite status probably goes to someone named Oeberg. Elvira was the star in Idre shooting clean in the short individual; sister and Olympic 15 km Gold Medalist Hanna missed a couple of shots, but loves competing at home and will be thinking win. Italy’s Lisa Vittozzi who shot well in both Idre competitions seems poised for a comeback season. Her teammate Dorothea Wierer who has been battling stomach problems but is on the upswing admitted this week that “right now I am not among the best,” but she won the opener last season and will be shooting for a repeat. Throwing in IBU World Champion Marketa Davidova who looked solid in Sjusjoen, Lisa Theresa Hauser, Germany’s Franziska Preuss and Belarus’ Dzinara Alimbekava means there will be plenty of jostling for the win.
Sturla Holm Laegreid started his epic season last year with a clean-shooting 20 km win in Kontiolahti. Laegreid shot clean in the Sjusjoen mass start but finished fourth behind Norway’s elder statesman Tarjei Boe with one miss. Tarjei looks poised to contend for the win on Saturday, as does teammate Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen who has been strong all summer and fall. Quentin Fillon Maillet, second to Tarjei was dissatisfied with his day, unhappy with second place. Fillon Maillet will go all out to win, as will come-backing teammate Emilien Jacquelin. Jacquelin, with two penalties in Sjusjoen flew around the tracks, finishing just 2.1 seconds behind Fillon Maillet. The Swedish duo of Martin Ponsiluoma and Sebastian Samuelsson dominated in Idre taking the short individual and sprint, respectively. Expect good performances from both; knowing the tracks and shooting range in their home stadium could be the keys to the podium for them. Then, there is last season’s 92% shooter Eder, who at age 38 could be in line for a podium in the season opener just as in 2018.
The pendulum shifts towards Eckhoff in Sunday’s opening sprint. She missed a single shot in Sjusjoen, finishing 21 seconds behind France’s Julia Simon. Eckhoff dominated the sprints last season and could easily take her first win in Oestersund, if it were not for…Olsbu Roeiseland. She shot the same as Eckhoff in Sjusjoen, but finished 18 seconds faster and just 3.6 seconds off Simon’s winning time. Olsbu Roeiseland struggled to make the podium during much of last season; she will come out trying to reverse that trend. The enigmatic Simon is the wild card, with huge competitiveness, flashing skis and as she showed in Sjusjoen, can shot clean. If that Simon shows up on Sunday, Eckhoff will have her hands full. Look for Hanna Oeberg to try to win as she did last season in Kontiolahti; in fact, and Oeberg 1-2 would be no surprise or Denise Herrmann showing up with her well-known ski speed to chase the win.
The men’s sprint goes like the women’s to a Norwegian and potentially a Boe Brothers 1-2. Johannes missed Sjusjoen with a cold that kept from training for six days, so this weekend will be his season opener. His pride and talent will take him a long way, but brother Tarjei and Christiansen will not hand him the win without a fight; clean shooting will most likely be the decider. Fillon Maillet is historically the best sprinter on the French team. He was a single penalty away from the podium in Sjusjoen, but again was not as fast on his skis as Jacquelin who missed twice; their fate also lies on the shooting range. Samuelsson has never won a sprint but was second in last season’s closing sprint in Oestersund; a win this time would be no surprise.
There are plenty of other talented athletes competing this weekend; some will make the podium. Those “wild cards” plus these “usual suspects will make the old biathlon adage come to life as the new BMW IBU World Cup Season kicks off, “It’s biathlon and anything can happen!”
Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni, Petr Slavik, Harald Deubert, Svensk Skidskytte/Per Danielsson