Biathlon joined the Olympic program in 1960 with just one event, the men’s 20-kilometer. A relay was added in 1968. Women did not participate in biathlon at the Olympic Winter Games until 1992.
Now, at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, biathlon enters a new era as the mixed relay made its debut. The new event, one of 12 that debuted in Sochi this year, brings the number of total biathlon events to 11.
The United States has never won an Olympic medal in biathlon. That drought extended in the new event, as the team of Susan Dunklee, Hannah Dreissigacker, Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey — in that order — finished ninth out of 16 teams at Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center on Wenesday. While it wasn’t an ideal result, members of the team were happy for another opportunity to race.
“I can’t cry over spilled milk,” said Dreissigacker, who had to ski a penalty lap. “It was a pretty amazing experience, really. I got to just ski with the very best athletes, representing the U.S.”
“It was fun, everybody had a good attitude out there,” added Burke.
The 27-kilometer relay started with the women. The first leg skied two kilometers until reaching the first shooting range. In a prone position, they had five targets to hit using eight bullets. The last three bullets, if needed, had to be loaded. Any targets that weren’t hit resulted in a penalty lap. After shooting, skiers raced two more kilometers before reaching the next shooting range, where they shot at five targets from a standing position. After the second round of shots, the women raced another two kilometers before tagging the next participant (the second woman).
The race ended with the men, who raced in 2.5-kilometer intervals instead of two-kilometer intervals.
As Burke explains it, the race is a big opportunity for countries with questionable depth in the gender-specific relays to field competitive teams.
“It’s a great event, especially for some of the smaller nations,” said Burke, who earned silver in the 20-kilometer at the 2013 World Championships. “Teams that have a tough time fielding four competitive women or four competitive men in the normal relay can often piece together two competitive women, two competitive men to have medal contenders.”
The event also makes for good primetime television in Europe, where the sport enjoys peak popularity. The atmosphere in the stadium reached a fever pitch at the exchanges, and the crowd reacted to almost every single shot.
Dreissigacker acknowledged the difference in timing for the event, and said that the schedule is a factor.
“We get on a funny schedule where we go to bed at midnight, 12:30, and sleep in until 9:30, 10 a.m.,” Dreissigacker said. “It’s opposite of what endurance athletes usually do. But here, we came from Europe before this, and we just didn’t shift our schedule from European time. So that way we’re still more awake at this time of night.”
The U.S. finished 12th in the November 2013 World Cup in Sweden, with Dunklee, Burke, and Bailey on that team with Annelies Cook instead of Dreissigacker. Dunklee set the team off to a great start, as she finished her six-mile leg in fourth place.
But too many mistakes in addition to Dreissigacker’s penalty lap cost the U.S. a chance to hold on to that lofty position. Team USA missed 13 shots, more than any team that didn’t get lapped, and wound up finishing 3:03.1 behind gold medal winners Norway. Norway missed only two shots of 42, while Ole Einar Bjoerndalen won his 13th medal, a new Olympic Winter Games record. Czech Republic won silver and Italy won bronze.
“It’s biathlon, you know? Some days you have it, some days you don’t,” Dunklee said about the team’s performance.
Bailey participated in the mass start the day before along with Burke, but Bailey remained excited about participating in the relay.
“I was actually really motivated and excited for this,” Bailey said. “Yesterday was physically, mentally tough. One of the toughest races I’ve ever done. And today, from waking up and looking outside and seeing that it was actually a nice day, and knowing that, just from the weather, it was going to be a much, much better track situation — that was motivating.”
The United States still have two more chances to get that elusive biathlon medal, as the women’s 4x6-kilometer and men’s 4x6.5-kilometer close out the week. For now, the four U.S. athletes displayed a sense of pride in being part of the first Olympic mixed relay event.
“It’s great to be a part of the first Olympics mixed relay team,” Bailey said. “I was really excited to see Susan’s lead-off leg, it was great. We did our best — we put it all out there.”