Sean Doherty competes at the IBU Biathlon World Cup on Dec. 14, 2018 in Hochfilzen, Austria.
Seventeen years ago, more than 64,000 spectators trekked out to Soldier Hollow, home of the biathlon events at the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002. Although the journey could be a long, two-hour drive from Salt Lake City, the payoff was worth it, as they got to see Norway’s Ole Einar Bjorndalen, nicknamed “The King of Biathlon,” win four gold medals.
This week, for the first time since those 2002 Winter Games, Soldier Hollow will again welcome a top international field as it plays host to the IBU World Cup, which runs Thursday through Sunday. This marks the first world cup on U.S. snow in three years, and it’s the first one at Soldier Hollow since the pre-Olympic event in 2001.
Although Bjorndalen won’t be competing — he retired last year — the field is expected to include the top Americans going against their counterparts from around the world.
“The fact we’re back here in Soldier Hollow is fantastic for the region to be able to come out and watch the best biathletes in the world compete head to head,” U.S. Biathlon president and CEO Max Cobb said. “It’s like a little slice of the Olympics coming back to Heber Valley.”
Added two-time Olympian Sean Doherty: “We don’t have the chance to have, relatively speaking, ‘home’ world cups all that often. It’s kind of a once every four year tradition. So it’s a treat to get to race on home soil. We’re looking forward to it for sure.”
Located in Wasatch Mountain State Park, Soldier Hollow was chosen in 1997 to be the site for biathlon, cross-country skiing and Nordic combined events for the 2002 Olympics. Cobb helped design the venue and was the 2002 competition chief there.
“That was definitely a highlight of my career to be able to be a part of hosting the Games,” he said.
A beautiful area, it is now home to the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center, where there is cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, snowmobiling and tubing. It also is where there is annual biathlon training program, though that takes place before the normal snowfall, so athletes use roller skis.
“I’ve done quite a bit of training there,” Doherty said. “It’s an annual place for a fall training camp. I’ve been on snow there and I’ve raced a couple times in spring, but I have done much more dryland offseason training in Soldier Hollow than snow training. But I’m familiar with the courses and the layout of all that stuff. So I’ve got a good feeling for it and how it works.”
Clare Egan, a 2018 Olympian, recently won the U.S. team trial, which was in November on roller skis at Soldier Hollow.
“I’ve done some roller-ski races in the offseason there, but it will be the first time I’ve done a winter biathlon race there,” she said. “I have competed in cross-country skiing there a number of times, so I’m pretty familiar with the trails and the venue there.”
The biathlon sprint races will be held on Thursday and Friday, followed by the doubleheader pursuits on Saturday and the single and mixed relays on Sunday. More than 180 athletes from roughly 28 nations are expected to compete in what is the eighth and final world cup before the world championships next month in Sweden.
In addition to the biathlon races, Soldier Hollow also will have ice sculptures, food trucks, beer sellers, musicians playing and more to entertain the fans, while NBC Sports will broadcast the event live.
“We’ve got a lot of fun races on the schedule,” Doherty said. “We have the mixed relay, which is a cool format. We have the sprint and the pursuit. The pursuit is super fun, one of my favorites of racing.”
Doherty, 23, has competed in two Olympics (2014 and 2018) and holds the record for most medals in IBU Youth/Junior World Championships. Among others Americans to watch this week are Egan, who has had her best biathlon season yet, and Susan Dunklee, a two-Olympian and world championship medalist.
“One of the coolest parts about the biathlon lately in the world cup is we have incredible depth at the competitive level,” Doherty said. “There are so many people on any day who could be going for a top-six performance. There are so many different athletes who are so good from so many nations.”
Doherty hopes the temperatures will be warmer at Soldier Hollow than the below-zero conditions that forced races to be cancelled at the world cup competition this past weekend in Canmore, Alberta.
“We’ll have the opportunity for people to come out and soak up the biathlon action in relative comfort,” he said. “That would be fun, and it would be cool to have a home crowd. When we race in Germany and those big venues in central Europe, we’ll have huge, live audiences. We’ll have 15,000, 20,000, 30,000 people a day. And the atmosphere is spectacular.”
So spectacular that Cobb says biathlon has become the most popular winter sport in Europe with the largest TV audience.
“I think it’s because it’s very, very TV friendly,” he said. “The events are relatively short. They are an endurance sport with drama. Because each time the athletes come into the shooting range, the lead changes. And so that’s incredibly exciting and really keeps spectators on the edge of their seats.”
Despite hosting the world cup at Soldier Hollow, Cobb doesn’t say the U.S. team will necessarily have an advantage on the course where annual training is held.
“Nevertheless, I think the athletes are really excited to be able to compete at home and have their friends and family come and watch it in person,” Cobb said. “That doesn’t really exist when we’re racing in Europe. So I think that’s an incredible opportunity. We just really want to show the world that North America cares about biathlon, too.”
Jim Caple is a former longtime writer for ESPN and the St. Paul Pioneer Press based in Seattle. He has covered sports on six continents, including 12 Olympics and 20 World Series. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.