They came from Ohio, New York, Rhode Island and Boston. They live in the United States, but their roots are in Russia and Ukraine.
They are avid fans of biathlon but had never seen competitions live. So they drove to Presque Isle to watch the International Biathlon Union World Cup Biathlon Feb. 11-13, unaware they would be cheering with others from their native countries.
An Olympic sport combining cross-country skiing and marksmanship, biathlon is the most televised winter sport in Europe and is gaining popularity in the United States. Presque Isle’s Nordic Heritage Center, one of two biathlon venues in Aroostook County, attracted 4,500 spectators to the three-day event.
“How many Ukranians and Russians are here?” I asked Valerie, originally from Russia, who drove up with her husband Gennadiy of Ukraine, from their home in New York.
“A lot,” she replied.
I didn’t get their last name, but I stood one day next to the couple watching the women’s relay teams on the shooting range as darkness fell and lights illumined the targets. The Russian team led in the first rounds and excitement was intense.
“These are my children,” Valerie said of the moving images on her phone. She had just sent an image of herself with the shooting range in the background.
“This is the first time we have left them,” she told me later, explaining how she and Gennadiy had decided to leave their 2- and 5-year-old children with their grandmother in New York in order to see the biathlon races they had watched on television for years.
Their exuberance as they waved their flag suggested the trip was worth the separation.
Anna Titova and Andriy Smuk brought their children, Alexandra, 6, and Daria, 11, with them from Rhode Island.
“We have watched it on TV,” Andriy told me after I photographed the family shivering in the cold. “When we saw that it was going to be right in our backyard, we decided to come.”
Anna later wrote in an email, “We were quite surprised to see this many fans of biathlon on this side of the ocean. In Europe there are thousands of spectators attending every race from many countries.”
Anna is from St. Petersburg, Russia, and her husband is from Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine. They met in Rhode Island and return often to their native lands to visit families.
“Our kids were born in the U.S., but they also have Russian citizenship, and we spend two or more months a year in St. Petersburg,” Anna wrote.
I spotted a group near the racecourse taking pictures of each other holding a Ukrainian flag and offered to take one with all of them together.
“Where are you from?” I asked the young man.
“Ohio,” he replied. “I’m from the U.S.”
“I am from Ukraine,” his companion said. “I am an exchange student in Ohio and came to the biathlon with my friend from Ohio.”
As the temperatures dropped, spectators bundled up, but Svetlana Shulga-Morstkaya and her daughter, Lada, were not deterred from wearing ornate Russian headdresses with long flowing veils.
“We live in the Boston area,” Svetlana told me. She is from Sakhalin, a large Russian island in the North Pacific Ocean, and her husband from Tashkent in Uzbekistan. She had made the traditional kokoshnik headdresses, which are part of the Russian national costume.
“I grew attached to watching biathlon competition on TV, and I am glad we attended,” Svetlana wrote later in an email. “It was very moving. We were wishing luck for every athlete (they work hard to get to that point), but cheering for the Russian teams.”
Svetlana has lived in America since 1999 and is nostalgic for her home.
“There is a lot of beauty, culture and love in my native country and it is very heartbreaking to observe how often Russia is portrayed negatively in the U.S.,” she said. “But we enjoyed the attention, friendly chatting and the competition of this international sport event. We will be visiting Maine again soon.”
The flags of Russia and Ukraine were not the only national flags waving in the stadium of the Nordic Heritage Center. Most prominent was the bright yellow, red and black flag of Germany.
Each day, a family of three waved larger German flags until on the last day of the competition they unfurled a flag at least 4 feet by 8 feet. When I caught up with Stephanie, she told me she, her husband Michael and 7-year-old daughter, Michaela, came from Dresden, Germany. The family, who didn’t want their last name used, said they were able to travel to the U.S. to see the biathlon because this leg of the World Cup was scheduled during Michaela’s school vacation.
“Are you cheering for any particular athlete?” I asked.
“No, we are cheering for all of them,” Stephanie replied.
They cheered in German while other fans cheered and chattered in many other languages. Event director Jane Towle said that, in addition to the fans from Russia, Ukraine and Germany, the stands in Presque Isle held spectators from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Belarus, France, Romania, Switzerland, Poland and perhaps other nations.
Overseas, television viewership broke records Feb. 13. Severe cold weather prompted officials to move the women’s relay from Sunday to Saturday, following the men’s relay, making it a double-header. Afternoon broadcasts from Presque Isle appeared in prime time in Europe.
“I know that Germany broke television viewer ratings on Saturday evening,” Towle said. “It was one of the highest rated biathlon evening competitions in recent history. We are very proud of this.”
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 email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.