On September 4, after a long 18 months, if only for a few brief hours, biathlon returned to “normal” with the combination of top athletes, enthusiastic fans and a joyous atmosphere at the Martin Fourcade Nordic Festival on the shores of beautiful Lake Annecy.
Joyful afternoon of Biathlon
It was one of those almost perfect blue-sky afternoons when there was magic in the air. Tiril and Sturla were there, so were Lisa, Franziska, Quentin, Benni and Anais. The 4,000 plus excited fans in the tribune and the thousands along the tracks strained to catch an up-close glimpse the biathlon stars that had only been miniature television images for what seemed like an eternity. They cheered heartily at the introductions, moaned at missed shots and reveled in Sturla’s runaway romp and new momma Anais’ brilliant standing shooting that sealed her win. The champagne-showered flower ceremonies capped off a joyful afternoon of biathlon. Biathlon was back…
Health Pass, Masks and Enthusiasm
Having the fans in the tribune was no easy task. Every ticketed or credentialed person had to have an electronic French Pass Sanitaire, proving vaccination or negative test within 72 hours which was checked at the entrance and mask-wearing within the Festival compound was mandatory. Yet that did not curb their enthusiasm. They were as thrilled to see their heroes as the athletes were to have them there.
There is no doubt that the MFNF is truly the gem of the summer rollerski competitions. Martin Fourcade and his team created not just an event, but a happening with the same meticulous preparation and attention to detail that Fourcade used in his record-setting career. The location is unmatched with tracks that hug deep-blue lake Annecy and scoot down tree-lined boulevards bringing the elite eight-competitor fields to a sun-splashed shooting range just meters from the tribunes. Behind the tribunes, a sports expo with stars signing autographs for hours, food and drink had the vibes of a huge biathlon family celebration. Fourcade graciously welcomed each athlete at the previous evening’s introductions, before everyone was treated to a concert under the stars by well-known French musician Gaetan Roussel. Caught up in the joyous atmosphere, Lisa Theresa Hauser commented, “I said, ‘yes’ the moment Martin invited me. I have been looking forward to this from that day.”
Chevalier-Bouchet on the Range; Eckhoff on the Tracks
When it came down to the two mass start competitions. Chevalier-Bouchet was absolutely special with her two perfect and quite fast standing stages sealed her win over Tiril Eckhoff and Franziska Preuss. She called her win in front of a French crowd, “simply amazing.” Despite being second, Eckhoff, like everyone else coming off a hard training week, looked very powerful on the tracks, gobbling up seconds in the last loop. Preuss looked a bit tired in that same last loop, but still had a very credible performance. Chevalier-Bouchet’s win showed that her fitness level is high and her shooting is definitely headed to a level maybe higher than her 85% career average.
Laegreid’s Romp; Khalili Cool and Calm
Although Women’s World Cup Total Score winner Eckhoff could not pull off a win her number two-in-the-world ranked teammate Sturla Holm Laegreid did more than just win. He demolished the field, leaving rising Russian star Said Karimulla Khalili 48 seconds back and 2017 IBU Sprint World Champion Benedikt Doll over a minute in arrears. This was the Laegreid that stunned the biathlon world last winter. He was confident on the range and powerful on the tracks. He loved every minute of his first-ever big invitational event, saying, “The last loop for me was amazing; I saw I had a big gap and it was just like you have this chance and do not know if you will ever get it again, so it was just a joy!” Second place Khalili finished second just as he did in Wiesbaden. The soft-spoken 23-year-old was cool, calm, and collected, shooting well and skiing within himself, once again showing that he will be a factor in the coming winter.
The sterling performances raised the atmosphere even higher. Laegreid was like a kid in a candy store, reveling and feeding off the fans in his last loop, where he slapped freely and joyously over the last 800 meters. That joy summed up the whole return of the biathlon experience at the MFNF. “I used the fans to give me energy… I am a very lucky man today, thank you Annecy. It was great fun, merci beaucoup!"
It was good to know that after a full season without fans and the excitement that they generate, their interest and enthusiasm for the sport remains strong. Having fans at any level back this coming season will be a huge boon to the athletes and sport.