AUGUSTA — Aroostook County has been selected to host both North American stops of the 2011 Biathlon World Cup, an event that draws Olympians and other top athletes from around the globe.
Fort Kent’s 10th Mountain Ski Club had already been selected as one of the nine sites for the Biathlon World Cup, which combines cross country skiing with rifle marksmanship.
But on Tuesday, the International Biathlon Union announced that the second North American stop would be held at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle during the first week of February.
The back-to-back stops on the World Cup circuit mean that Aroostook County will have roughly 10 days in the limelight in an event that draws tens of thousands of spectators, not to mention tens of millions of television viewers in Europe.
“This is important not only for Aroostook County … but for the entire state of Maine,” Gov. John Baldacci said Wednesday at an event in his State House office.
Aroostook County representatives said they hope they can translate some of that exposure into additional tourism to Europeans interested not only in winter sports but also hunting, fishing, snowmobiling and other activities.
“We have a tremendous resource here in the state of Maine that is very attractive to them,” Andy Shepard, president and CEO of the Maine Winter Sports Center. “What this gives us is a unique opportunity in the state to engage that marketplace in a discussion that I believe can help transform the economy of Northern Maine and hopefully state of Maine as well.”
The Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle is scheduled to host events February 4-6 while the 10th Mountain Lodge in Fort Kent will host biathlon events February 10-13.
Presque Isle was awarded the second North American site after Lake Placid, N.Y. — home of the 1980 Olympic Games — withdrew from consideration. Presque Isle hosted the 2010 Junior Olympic National Cross Country Ski Championships, and the volunteers who helped organize that event will likely be mobilized again for the World Cup.
“Getting this event on 8 months notice will present a number of challenges to us, but we believe we have some of the best volunteers in the world and we will be up to that challenge,” said Tim Vernon, chairman of the Nordic Heritage Center.
Fort Kent was a host city during the 2004 Biathlon World Cup. That event drew 20,000 spectators — a record for a biathlon event in North America — and generated an estimated $5.2 million in economic activity for the St. John Valley. An estimated 50 million television viewers in Europe also watched the events.
Max Cobb, executive director of the U.S. Biathlon Team, said 200 athletes from more than two dozen countries plus 100 officials are slated to attend the events in Maine. Numerous Olympic medalists are expected to compete, Cobb said.
“The World Cup is the highest level of international competition, so these are the same athletes representing their nations at the Olympic games,” Cobb said. “They make a nine-stop tour around the world to compete, so we are very lucky to have them.”
The Biathlon World Cup’s seven other stops are in Sweden, Austria, Slovenia, Germany, Italy and Norway.
The Winter Sports Center’s Shepard pointed out that the Biathlon World Cup has a 70 percent market share of television viewership in Germany. And be-cause of time differences, the farther west events are held in the U.S. the more difficult it is for European viewers to watch live.
That puts Maine in a prime location. In fact, Shepard said that with the withdrawal of Lake Placid from the hosting competition, Aroostook County now has a virtual monopoly on biathlon in North America.
“This is not only a discussion about the events that will happen this winter,” Shepard said. “I think this establishes for the foreseeable future that biathlon will be held in Aroostook County.”