Recent strides give US biathlon hope for Vancouver
At first glance, there was little spectacular about American biathlon results at the Turin Olympics. The United States had failed yet again to win any medals, and none of its athletes even cracked the top five. Look a little further, though, and biathlon enthusiasts saw some things that not only provided hope, but convinced them that, given the right resources, the Americans could stand on the podium at the Vancouver Games. "This last weekend confirms that," U.S. Biathlon executive director Max Cobb said, referring to Tim Burke's silver and bronze at the season's first World Cup event, the first time an American biathlete has won two medals at one event. Biathlon combines cross-country skiing with rifle marksmanship. It's wildly popular in Europe, where it is the top-rated winter sport on television. No surprise, then, that it's dominated by Europeans, the Norwegians, Germans and Russians in particular. The Americans have been, at best, bit players in biathlon. Josh Thompson won three medals back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the U.S. men won the silver at a World Cup relay in 1988. But there have been no Olympic medals and, after Thompson's silver and bronze at World Cup events in 1992, no medals of any sort until last season. In Turin, however, Jay Hakkinen, then 29, was 10th in the 20-kilometer race. He and his three teammates - all in their early 20s - were ninth in the relay. Considering biathletes don't peak until their late 20s or early 30s, American officials felt they could be on the verge of a watershed moment for the sport in the United States. "If you looked at the age of the athletes in the result list, (the Americans) had some of the best results of anybody their age," Cobb said. "We really felt like they were in a position to move up if we could provide a healthy program." A healthy program meant money, however. Lots of it. The top countries can spend as much as $10 million a year on their teams. In the last quadrennium, the Americans were getting $250,000 a year from the U.S. Olympic Committee. After Turin, U.S. Biathlon officials explained their vision to the USOC and asked for more funding. The federation had already restructured itself, cutting its board in half and hiring Larry Pugh as chairman. For years, smaller federations had been run by volunteers who were long on love for the sport but short on the skill sets needed to make nonprofits competitive in the current marketplace. As former CEO of VF Corp. and chairman of the board at Colby College, Pugh had experience with both the corporate and nonprofit worlds. U.S. Biathlon had also gotten a big assist from TD Bank, whose chairman, Bill Ryan, was captivated after attending a World Cup event in Maine. The bank signed a five-year deal in 2005 that provided cash as well as expertise in marketing and business plans. "U.S. Biathlon was struggling financially. It was struggling with what its goals and missions were, and we thought we could help," Ryan said. "It was really a labor of love. We enjoyed doing it, it was good for our community where we had banks, and we could help out an organization that needed it." All of that helped convince the USOC to quadruple biathlon's funding to $1 million a year. With the increased budget, Cobb set out to hire the best coach possible. He targeted Per Nilsson, a coach at Sweden's National Sports Academy who had already worked with some U.S. athletes during a year he'd spent at the Maine Winter Sports Center. Three times Cobb offered Nilsson the job, and three times Nilsson turned him down. But Cobb kept tweaking the offer to make it more enticing. Nilsson could continue to live in Sweden, where his facilities were first-rate, and work with the athletes at camps in the United States and Europe. U.S. Biathlon would hire two coaches, so Nilsson wouldn't get burned out by the grueling World Cup season. It would put together a high-performance team to handle the logistics that are an additional burden for many coaches. Finally, on Cobb's fourth offer, Nilsson said yes. Mikael Lofgren, a two-time bronze medalist at the Albertville Olympics, also came on board. (Lofgren has since left to become Norway's head coach, and was replaced by Armin Auchentaller). Bernd Eisenbichler, U.S. Biathlon's ski technician since 1999, took charge of the high-performance program. "The entire staff is really professional," Burke said, "and has given me everything I need to compete with the best in world." Slowly, the results started to come. Burke had a pair of top-10 finishes at the 2008 world championships. Jeremy Teela ended the 17-year medal drought in March with a bronze at a World Cup event. Then, last week, Burke matched the best finish ever for a U.S. biathlete with a silver in the season-opening 20K. Two days later, he gave the United States its very first sprint medal. "I'm pleasantly surprised by the strides they've made," Ryan said. "We're close. We're very, very close - probably a little ahead of my timeframe." Despite their strides, the Americans are still a "shoestring" operation compared to the sport's heavyweights. But with every good result, the confidence of the entire team grows. This is no longer just a goal spelled out in a business plan. Those medals hanging around Burke and Teela's necks are real. Burke stood on the podium beside Ole Einar Bjorndalen, perhaps the greatest biathlete ever. Come February, who knows what the Americans might pull off. "We absolutely have the goal of winning a medal at the Olympics in Vancouver, and that's definitely where our focus is," Cobb said. "But it was such a validation of everything we've done to be in a position to do that last week."