PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Throughout the seven days of competition at the IBU Youth/Junior World Biathlon Championships in northern Maine this week, scores of fans here and millions more in Europe have tracked the hundreds of athletes thanks to live streaming satellite video technology.
Improving the sport for spectators is just one example of how far biathlon has come in its relatively short history, according to two experts here observing the competition.
Not all that long ago, the sport that combines cross-country skiing and marksmanship included only a handful of competitors racing on remote trails in near isolation.
“Biathlon when we started looks very different than what you are seeing here now,” Art Stegen, former U.S. Biathlon team member, coach and board secretary with the U.S. Biathlon Association, said this week. “It was a very spectator unfriendly sport.”
Stegen was at the championship venue at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle along with fellow U.S. biathlon team alum and Olympian Charlie Kellogg.
In the world of biathlon, the two members of the sport’s hall of fame are something of a legend, having competed on Olympic and world championship teams going back to the 1960s.
Both men got their starts thanks to Uncle Sam and the military draft, Kellogg in 1963 and Stegen in 1970.
“All the biathletes in those days were essentially soldiers,” Stegen said. “The Army had the ability to draft in anyone with skiing ability.”
At the same time, European countries — especially eastern bloc nations — were developing their own teams based on strong Nordic skiing traditions, Stegen said, noting that some of those nations held off fielding Olympic biathlon teams for years, waiting until the caliber of athletes assured medal-winning performances.
In the middle of the last century, the U.S. wanted skiers — fast skiers who could shoot.
In the late 1950s the International Olympic Committee had announced the 1960 winter games would take place at Squaw Valley, Calif., and mark the first time biathlon would be an official event, Stegen said.
“The U.S. Olympic Committee figured we needed someone to enter it,” he said.
It made sense, he said, to mine the country’s military personnel for the athletes since its members had been participating in “military patrol races,” sort of a biathlon precursor, since 1924.
Since then, biathlon has moved out of the military-exclusive community — and joined the ranks of high school, college and national team sports anywhere there is enough snow on which to ski.
But as Stegen and Kellogg watch the hundreds of athletes from 30 nations compete in Presque Isle this week they can’t help but look back to the sport’s roots.
Today, each biathlon team arrives at a venue with coaches, wax technicians and even team doctors. Equipment is state-of-the-art and they wear brightly colored uniforms that make the biathletes look fast even when standing still.
Depending on the race, they ski 12-, 15-, or 20-kilometer courses, entering a common range for two or four sessions of shooting with lightweight, sophisticated .22 caliber rifles they wear snug to their backs on custom-designed slings.
Missed shots are assessed a set time penalty or send the skier around a 150-meter penalty loop.
“Originally we used 30-06 rifles,” Kellogg said. “And there was no common range.”
Instead, five decades ago the athletes skied on woods trails that were broken up by shooting ranges set at random distances.
“On one 20-kilometer loop you might shoot four times along the way,” Stegen said. “And those ranges were not set up facing the same direction so you always had to deal with different wind directions and lighting situations.”
Since the skiers spent the entire race deep in the woods, there was really nothing for the few fans U.S. biathlon had at the time to watch.
“It made for a very spectator-unfriendly event,” Stegen said.
All that skiing, Kellogg said, was on wooden skis using bamboo poles on trails that had been “groomed” by someone tamping them down using snowshoes and then skiing slowly over them to create a track.
“Then there was the fiendish way our rifles were attached to our backs,” Kellogg said. “We wore them in a way that ensured the [rifle] barrel would hit your head every 30 meters or so.”
By the 1960s, the common range had been introduced and the two men recall shooting paper targets in a time when penalty loops had not even been thought of.
“There were rings on the target and depending on how close you got to the center of those rings you got time penalties,” Stegen said.
That meant after a race, officials spent huge amounts of time evaluating and scoring individual targets.
“You never knew until long after a race was over, who won,” Kellogg said.
“That’s not very much fun to watch,” Stegen added.
It took a few more years — during which the sport’s organizers used everything from balloons to glass for targets — but eventually the sport evolved to its present day format using small bore rifles on a 50-meter range with “immediate response” targets that instantly show fans if the athlete has hit it or not.
“Even the clothes have changed everything,” Kellogg said. “Your feet and toes don’t get cold anymore.”
Stegen pointed to the range, saying, “Look at those carpets,” indicating the squares placed at each shooting station on which the athletes stand or lay down to shoot. “We just lay down on the ice.”
It’s taken awhile, the two men said, but the sport is growing a solid fan base in this country and with American Sean Doherty well on his way to becoming the most medaled athlete in Presque Isle this week, biathlon has a bright future.
“No other sport has as many nations participating in the winter Olympics,” Stegen said.
“The sport has developed an entire infrastructure that has enhanced everything for the fans,” Kellogg said. “Now 27 million people in Europe watch a biathlon race on television and that means what is happening here in Presque Isle is having an extreme visual impact in Europe.”
Both men continue to be very active on and off the biathlon trails and each took time to ski the Nordic center course and spend time chatting with the young athletes this week.
“I am just so excited for these kids,” Stegen said. “This is something they will have for the rest of their lives [and] some may go on to the Olympics to represent their country or some other international championship and that is a real honor for an athlete.”
The IBU Youth/Junior World Biathlon Championships continue through Friday in Presque Isle. Admission is free and a complete race schedule can be found at http://www.discovernorthernmaine.com/ibu-biathlon-youth-junior-world-champs/.