Biathlon bounty raises concerns

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Norwegian athletes’ performance at the Biathlon World Championships that ended in the Czech Republic over the weekend resulted in a haul of 11 medals in 11 events, eight of them gold. It was a feat that no nation had ever managed before, and the Norwegians’ domination was so complete that other nations’ athletes and sports reporters were muttering it may have hurt both the excitement and interest in the event.

Another Norwegian (this time, Tarjei Bø) was back on top of the winners' platform as the Biathlon World Championships ended over the weekend. Another Norwegian, Emil Helge Svendsen, took bronze, adding to the medal haul of 11 in 11 events, including eight gold. NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Another Norwegian (this time, Tarjei Bø) was back on top of the winners’ platform as the Biathlon World Championships ended over the weekend. Another Norwegian, Emil Helge Svendsen, took bronze, adding to the medal haul of 11 in 11 events, including eight gold. NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

“Can we stand any more of Norway?” one German reporter asked a Norwegian colleague in the pressroom in Nove Mesto, after Norway’s skier and sharp-shooter Emil Hegle Svendsen had helped the four-man Norwegian team win another gold medal on Saturday, this time in the men’s relay. “I’m not sure,” responded the Norwegian, reported newspaper Aftenposten.

By Sunday, even the official website for the International Biathlon Union’s organizing committee for the 11-day event was sarcastically writing that “The Norwegian Championship in Nove Mesto … has ended. Pardon us, the World Championships, even though the Norwegians have nearly transformed it into their separate home championship.”

That came after Norway’s Tarjei Bø, who suffered from illness earlier in the season, battled back and took the last gold medal of the international competition in the men’s 15-kilometer Mass Start. Bø, a good friend and teammate of Svendsen who took the bronze on Sunday, shot perfectly and skied fast. Anton Shipulin of Russia won the silver.

Tarjei Bø topped Norway's nightly news on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Sunday and was thrilled with his gold medal in the men's Mass Start on Sunday, which added to Norway's gold rush at the Biathlon World Championships. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Tarjei Bø topped Norway’s nightly news on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Sunday and was thrilled with his gold medal in the men’s Mass Start on Sunday, which added to Norway’s gold rush at the Biathlon World Championships. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

The Czech organizers, whose own favourite ended fourth “once again,” gallantly acknowledged Bø’s victory noting that he “had a perfect race with good skiing and flawless shooting and therefore he deservedly gained the title.” The same could be said of Svendsen’s performances earlier and Tora Berger’s gold rush as well, but the Norwegians were so good that team officials felt they needed to defend the victories and prove they weren’t letting it go to their heads.

“We don’t take any of the seven gold medals here for granted,” athletics chief Per Arne Botnan told Aftenposten on Saturday, before Bø secured the eighth medal on Sunday. “We’re jubilant over all of them.”

Anders Besseberg, president of Norway’s biathlon association, had to address the issue of whether Norway was a bit too dominant, and whether that might hurt international interest in the sport.

“Eleven nations have won medals here,” Besseberg told Aftenposten. “The fact that Norway is dominating, and that Berger and Svendsen are winning more gold than others, is neither completely unusual nor negative.”

‘Not so great’
Others weren’t so sure. Frode Andresen, who won gold at the World Championships in 2000, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Monday that “it’s not so great for the sport that Norway wins so much as it did in this championship. Interest from other countries can decline.”

Andresen, at the risk of throwing cold water on his own country’s victories, said he was impressed by the Norwegian performance but does worry that it can backfire. He said Berger and Svendsen were “the architects behind almost everything” in the World Championships, and may be viewed as unbeatable.

The skiers and shooters from other countries that have solid track records in the sport, including France, Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic, didn’t do as well as expected during championship competition and some Germans thought that spoiled the excitement. Aftenposten cited an example of a German TV reporter exclaiming that “Svendsen and Berger win regardless” after another Norwegian victory, while one Swedish reporter responded that “Jag vill åka hem!” (I want to go home).

The men’s relay on Saturday did arguably lack excitement, with the Norwegians way out in front. The French team, which won the silver, finished more than a minute behind the Norwegians, a long time in the sports world.

‘Concentration, mentally strong’
Coach Espen Nordby Andersen attributed the record-strong Norwegian performance to “concentration” and a “mentally strong team on both the men’s and women’s sides.” He insisted that other nations didn’t give up, stressing that others “can show us their backs” at any time.”

Now the “ski-shooters,” as they’re called in Norway, intend to take a break, not least before the next World Cup event on home turf at Holmenkollen in Oslo begins late next week. Tora Berger, who won four gold medals and two silvers during the past week, joined her teammates in popping open champagne bottles.

“It’s been an incredible World Championships for me,” Berger said. “Now I’ll go home to Norway and just relax for a few days.” She can also smile all the way to the bank. Aftenposten reported that her medals alone earned her nearly NOK 700,000 in prize money and bonus payments, and in addition comes money from sponsors and equipment-makers. The amount pales in comparison to many other sports, but Berger was smiling from ear-to-ear, continuing to insist that she just wants to have fun. The 31-year-old champ intends to retire after the Winter Olympics next year.

So does Norway’s legendary biathlon star Ole Einar Bjørndalen, age 39, who earned his 50th medal as part of the men’s relay team on Saturday. “This is probably my last World Championships,” Bjørndalen said. “The plan is that the Olympics next year will be the end.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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