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U.S. Biathlon on the right track


Sun, Dec  26, 2010 - By Alan Abrahamson

Did the U.S. biathlon team bring back the medals it was expecting at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games? No.

Has the U.S. biathlon team enjoyed anything like the we-are-good, really-we-are results it was expecting in the opening weeks of the current World Cup season? No.

So as that season heads into the traditional holiday break, is ail doom-and-gloom in and around the U.S. biathlon program? Hardly.

There's no doom, no gloom. And there shouldn't be.

Tim Burke, biathlete

Tim Burke (Photos: Nordic Focus)

Yes, biathlon remains the winter sport in which the United States could win so many medals. There were 30 up for grabs in Vancouver, for instance. Yet in all of Winter Olympic Games history the American program has won a grand total of -- well, none.

That's a fact. But that's not cause for defeatism.

The apt comparison is the U.S. Nordic combined program, and how it took time and money and patience for that program to get from nowhere to Vancouver and four medals, including two in one glorious day, Billy Demong's gold and Johnny Spillane's silver in the long hill. 

In all, it took 14 years for those results. 

Fourteen years.

It was in 1996 when the investments began -- for real -- in the Nordic combined program.

Seven years later came the signs of a breakthrough. Spillane won a world championship in 2003. But the Olympic breakthrough didn't come for another seven more years.

It just takes time.

That's what it's going to take with biathlon, too.

Tim Burke, biathleteLast World Cup season, Tim Burke (photo top and right by Nordic Focus) found himself atop the World Cup standings for the first time.  They've been keeping World Cup standings stats dating to the 1950s, and in all those years no American had been on top, according to the International Biathlon Union, until Burke found himself wearing the yellow jersey emblematic of Number One.

So expectations were super-high for him in Vancouver. 

In the very first race, he finished 47th. 

The three medalists in that race, as it would turn out, were among the first 10 starters. Those three got to shoot and to ski their two laps before a raging snowstorm blew in. 

Stuff like that happens in biathlon. It's an outdoor sport.

It didn't get much better for Burke after that in Vancouver.

But, again, stuff happens. That's not an excuse. You don't get to lead the World Cup standings and not have talent.

In a telephone interview, Burke said, referring to two of his American Olympic teammates, "If Lowell Bailey or Jay Hakkinen had started within the first 10 starters that day, they would have been on the podium. If that had happened, no one would be talking about what a poor Olympics the U.S. biathlon program had had. That was just random -- it was poor start order."

He also said, "If you look at where we were after 2006 and compare it to where we are now -- we didn't have coaches, we didn't have a budget, I was coaching myself, I was writing my own training plans. It's a completely different feeling. We're organized. We have the right leaders in the right positions. We have momentum."

Crucially, they have money -- at least, they have some money. 

The U.S. Olympic Committee believes, genuinely believes, in the leadership of Max Cobb, the president and chief executive of U.S. Biathlon, and in the world-class staff Cobb has put together. It includes Bernd Eisenbichler, the team's high-performance director, and a coaching staff led by Per Nilsson. 

All in, USOC support for biathlon now totals about $1 million annually. 

"Our society is such that it's so hard to believe sometimes in that kind of long-term commitment," noted Alan Ashley, the USOC's managing director of sport performance, adding a moment later of all involved at U.S. Biathlon, "They know they can win, and so we all have to be patient and diligent."

In February, the World Cup comes back to the United States for the first time since 2004; it will make two stops in northern Maine.

So, no matter the results, it's bound to be a big winter for biathlon in the United States. 

Maybe Burke or another American does something big at one of the stops in Maine. Maybe not. 

With biathlon, you have to take the long view. 

How long? No one is saying Sochi 2014 or bust, because everyone knows it took from 1996 until 2010 for Nordic combined. But make no mistake -- 2014 is for sure the goal.

"We know we can make it happen," Cobb said. "We just need the time to make it happen."