PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Jane Towle, who was event director for the 2014 IBU World Youth/Junior Biathlon Championships held at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle, was the sole American guest of the Russian Biathlon Union in Moscow earlier this month.
“I attended an end-of-the-season celebration and exhibition that was held at the Moscow Forum,” Towle said after returning to Maine on April 7. “The top 10 biathletes — women and men — are invited to this exhibition which is held in an indoor biathlon arena, which was the site of the 1980 Olympic opening ceremonies.
“The biathletes ski and shoot inside, and then they ski outside of the building around the streets of Moscow, and then come back in to do another round of shooting, and then they ski the course that’s inside again and head out. They put snow all through the streets and you can watch from inside on the big screen. It was something to see,” she said, noting that the sound of the rifles firing inside wasn’t as bad as one would expect. “It’s louder than when you hear it at the stadium out at Nordic Heritage, which is like a ‘snapping’ sound; this is more like a ‘pop.’ It’s louder, but it’s tolerable because this place is huge.”
Towle said she was invited because the Nordic Heritage Center was the only venue in North America this year that hosted an IBU-sanctioned event.
“As a result, the Russian Biathlon Union invited organizing committee presidents or event directors — like myself — from the federations that hosted an event this season,” she said. “It was interesting … as I was looking around and talking to other people, there were no American athletes that were invited to this because you have to make the top 10, so I was the only person from the United States in that arena. I’m sure that will be the only time in my life I will ever be in an arena with 30,000 people and be the only American.”
Calling it an “unbelievable experience,” Towle said Russia is a “different world than what we live in here.”
“Politically there’s a lot of unrest over there right now, so that made it even more interesting,” she said. “I watched mostly news television when I was over there and they do have an English-speaking news channel, so I watched that a lot and it certainly provides a different spin than what we have here. That was as fascinating as anything.
“I’m grateful that the Russian Biathlon Union put out the invitation for me to attend this. Every time a representative of the Nordic Heritage Center appears on the world stage somewhere it cements our position in the biathlon community,” said Towle. “Hosting a biathlon event is truly a gift to our community. There are very, very few places in North America — or the world — that have an opportunity to host a biathlon World Cup, and the gift is financially, economically and culturally. If the biathlon events hosted in Presque Isle continue to take off, we’ll have a new model for what this looks like and it can be a major economic driver in the region as big as any business that we have here.”
This wasn’t Towle’s first trip to Russia.
“I actually went to Russia 20 years ago when I was working for Delta Airlines, which had just opened a route from New York to Moscow,” she said. “These were very early times in Moscow opening up to the West, and the differences I saw between 20 years ago and today were shockingly different. It was a Third World country 20 years ago, and it’s become Westernized.
“Then I was in Sochi last June to participate in summer meetings that are held every other year where all the federations get together and they make determinations of where the future events are going to be, as well as talk about IBU business,” said Towle. “This recent trip was a much smaller version of that because there aren’t as many federations that get invited. Even though no American athlete was invited, I feel like I was asked to go because we had a particularly successful World Juniors this year in the eyes of the IBU.”
Recognizing that North America is still “a fairly new, unseasoned player in the game of biathlon,” Towle said some Europeans are trying to get the United States more involved in the sport.
“Not everyone, however, feels that way because every time we host an event here, it takes away from a European host because there are only 10-12 IBU-sanctioned events each year,” she said. “While they want to keep the World Cups for themselves, they also want to grow this sport, and the only way to do that is to bring it to North America because it’s so saturated in Europe. For that reason, I was received warmly but with trepidation.”
The Nordic Heritage Center will next host the World Cup in February 2016.
“There will be two events in North America — one at our venue and one in Canmore, Alberta, Canada.
While I was in Moscow, I met with the IBU and I was advocating that Nordic Heritage Center host the second event,” said Towle. “The reason for that is it because it makes it much easier logistically for our event because everybody will be all together in Canmore and won’t be coming in on scattered flights like they were when we hosted the Juniors. They’d likely be taking a chartered flight and arrive together as one big group which would make things easier for us. It would also be easier in terms of going through customs. They’d be going through Canadian customs rather than customs at the airport in Boston or New York.
“I think I accomplished that goal because there was nobody from Canmore there advocating for themselves,” she said.
Towle said while she will be involved with the 2016 World Cup, she will not be the event director.
“In any organizing committee that’s all volunteers like we are — and we’re a big group … it takes 500 volunteers to pull this off — you need fresh faces as leaders,” she said. “Myself and Steve Towle, event manager, only have a reach of so far of people to fill the volunteer chart. We only know so many people and we reach out to the people we know, but in order to keep this fresh and moving in a positive direction, you need to have new leaders because they have a different reach. Maybe they reach to Caribou or Mars Hill or Ashland.
“Steve and I will definitely be there to give guidance and offer our help, but we need new leaders. Nobody needs to be frightened of this position; it’s not a hard position because most of these jobs are very well oiled,” said Towle, “but we’ll be there offering advice and encouragement to the new leaders.”