As the volunteer event director for the 2016 World Cup Biathlon to be held at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle in February, Jane Towle fielded a lot of questions when she traveled to Oslo, Norway, in October to meet with her counterparts from other host countries for the nine rounds of races on the 2015-2016 circuit.

Presque Isle is the only stop in the United States for this year’s World Cup Biathlon teams who also will travel to Sweden, Austria, Slovenia, Germany, Italy, Canada and Norway between November 2015 and March 2016. After competing in Presque Isle Feb. 11-14, the eighth of nine stops, the teams will go to Oslo and the world championships.

“People see my jacket and they want to talk to me,” Towle recalled of the recent event directors’ meeting. “The Nordic Heritage Center is fascinating to them.”

Why are the Europeans so intrigued with northern Maine?

In Europe, biathlon is the most televised winter sport, with 120 million viewers, Towle said. Organizing events requires year-round paid staff. Her counterpart in Norway is a former Olympic ski jumper.

In the small host town of Ruhpolding, Germany, biathlon drives the economy. The mayor serves as event director; it’s part of the job. The military plays a role in Hochfilzen, Austria, where the World Cup venue is a military base.

Maine is different. The stadium is far more intimate, with spectators close to the skiers, and “everybody cheers for every team, even the Russians,” Towle said, adding that Russians are unused to such support.

But European event directors are most interested to learn that Maine events are run entirely by volunteers.

“This is a remarkable thing that we are able to do,” said Towle, a real estate broker in Presque Isle. “It’s a huge undertaking and responsibility. The people of Aroostook County always step up and host to the highest quality.”

As an Olympic sport, biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and marksmanship, must be worldwide, so athletes must compete in North America. Presque Isle is currently the only venue in the United States that meets all the criteria to host the World Cup.

More than 400 athletes, coaches and support staff from 32 countries, along with a European media contingent and fans, are expected to arrive in Aroostook County in the days leading up to the event.

“Maine has a big place on the stage of biathlon,” Towle said.

Maine’s location gives it an advantage. Broadcasts from the East Coast reach Europe at prime time, so viewers there are able to watch biathlon races in Presque Isle live.

Towle has traveled to Europe for several organizer meetings, where participants who have seen broadcasts from Maine want to know more about “how we do it.”

And her answer, in short, is “volunteers.”

Volunteer networks have been cultivated and tested at World Cup events in both Presque Isle and Fort Kent. The Nordic Heritage Center and Fort Kent’s 10th Mountain Division Lodge hosted back-to-back World Cup events in 2011. Presque Isle hosted the Youth/Junior World Championships in 2006 and 2014, and Fort Kent hosted World Cup Biathlon in 2004.

The 2016 World Cup 8 is the first large-scale event hosted by the Nordic Heritage Center since it separated from the Maine Winter Sports Center. The Nordic Heritage Sport Club, led by its president Paul Towle, won the support of the Libra Foundation for operation and maintenance of the four-season facility, augmenting the contributions of local business partners, individual donors, club memberships and revenue generated by events, such as the World Cup.

“The future looks very bright for the Nordic Heritage Center,” Jane Towle said. “We know what we can do and how we can do it.”

As of Dec. 28, 250 of the expected 400 volunteers had applied to work, indicating their preferences from a list of 25 areas of interest in the online application.

“We are ahead of where we were in the past at this time,” said Nancy Fletcher, coordinator of volunteers, adding that the most popular areas — culture and hosting, event services and spectator services — were already full.

“And they are not just from Maine. People from other states have applied,” she said, expressing regret that the local committee could not arrange housing for a pair of twin sisters from Russia who want to help. “It is amazing how they find out and want to be part of it.”

Applications to volunteer have come from Ohio, Texas and South Carolina, as well as Canada.

“I am proud of the Nordic Heritage Center and what it can do to bring world-class athletes to our small community,” said Fletcher, former head of access services at the University of Presque Isle library, who has been a regular volunteer at past events.

“It boggles my mind. If they are willing to come here, I want to make it a good experience.”

For more information, visit

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.