Wednesday, February 15, 2006

GUEST POST -- Deutschland Uber Alles

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:52 AM |  

From Mark Yost, Opinion Page Associate Editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press --

I’d been meaning to start a guest post for the Winter Olympics at Torino (yes, I use the original Italian, not the AP-mandated Turin) here on the site of my good friend and sometimes Patriot co-host Captain Fishsticks.

What will I blog on? Biathlon, of course. It’s the only sport that really matters during the Winter Olympics. And because it involves guns, the MSM can’t be counted on to give it the coverage it deserves.

I fell in love with biathlon when I was working for The Wall Street Journal Europe in Brussels in the mid-1990s. Most Americans don’t realize that in some European countries, biathletes are more popular than Michael Jordan was in the U.S. during the height of his career. Indeed, in Europe biathletes are national heroes who can’t go to the airport, shopping or out to dinner without being mobbed. Moreover, biathlon consistently outrates Formula One and World Cup soccer on Eurosport, the Continent’s ESPN equivalent.

I went to Bresno Slovakia in 1996 for the Biathlon World Cup Championships to write about it for the Journal and was immediately hooked. While biathlon usually takes a back seat to just straight up cross-country skiing (that damn MSM again), it’s a lot harder. Not only do the biathletes ski as fast as their cross-country counterparts, but they have to be in good enough shape to slow down their heart rate, steady their hand, and shoot a target 25 meters away with a .22 caliber rifle (in other words, this is not a sport for Mitch Berg or David Strom).

Did I also mention that women do this? Call me crazy, but there’s nothing as invigorating as a world-class female athlete, clad in form-fitting lycra carrying a gun. It just doesn’t get any better. And to realize how hard these athletes compete, all you have to do is stand by the finish line. Many of them, in the best shape of their lives with about 2 mg of body fat, come across the finish line and collapse.

One particularly fetching gal who caught my eye was Uschi Disl, the sweetheart of the German team and a sentimental favorite who, at 35, is probably competing in her last Olympics . Indeed, the highlight of my young career at the Journal was interviewing Frau Disl, in German. I’ve tried to follow biathlon since coming back to the states, and have written a few follow on pieces for the Journal, but it’s just not the same as being in Europe.

I should also note that while in Bresno I began one of the greatest friendships I’ve ever had. I started chatting up a guy on the shooting range who turned out to be Command Sgt. Major Gene Soboleski. He was then a full-time employee of the Vermont National Guard, in charge of running the Winter Warfare Center at Camp Ethan Allen outside Burlington. An Army marksman, he was also the volunteer shooting coach for the women’s World Cup and Olympic teams, a natural connection because many of our biathletes are members of the U.S. Army’s Athletes in Uniform program. It allows them to train full time for the Olympics, receive full-time pay from the Army, but only drill one weekend a month, like reservists or National Guard troops. Soboleski and I have kept in touch ever since and in a few years my son, George, will go to Vermont for the summer to attend the Soboleski School of Marksmanship.

One of these years, I plan to go back for a biathlon winter vacation. The World Cup tour has events back to back in Ruhpolding, Germany, and Antolz, Italy. The biathlon community is like the rodeo or circus; they travel from place to place during the season, often staying in the same hotels, eating in the same restaurants, and all become quite close (yet remain intensely competitive). When the match is over in Ruhpolding, the whole biathlon caravan packs up and travels across the Alps, through the Bremmer Pass, to Antolz, for the next competition. According to Soboleski, it’s some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world (unless there’s a storm, then the roads are a real bear).

Which brings us back to this year’s Olympics in Torino. The biathlon events are actually held at a brand-new venue at San Sicario. Why did they need a brand new venue if they hold World Cup events at Antolz every year? Good question. The Olympic committee would tell you that it’s because holding it at Antolz would give World Cup competitors an unfair advantage because they’ve raced there so much. The truth is that it’s one of the benefits of hosting an Olympics. Even though countries may have perfectly suitable facilities, why not get the international community to build you one?

Nonetheless, the Germans are dominating in the early going. Deutschlander Michael Greis won the first Gold Medal of the Games, winning the 20K individual race on Saturday. And today, Sven Fischer, the men’s counterpart to Uschi Disl won the 10K sprint event. Both victories came at the expense of Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, the Norwegian hot shoe who excelled at Nagano in 1998 and Salt Lake City in 2002 and was expected to be the standout men’s biathlete of these Games.

Like goaltending in hockey, shooting is what wins championships in biathlon. During the 20K, Greis missed only one of his 20 targets (they ski five loops, stopping after each to shoot, twice standing and twice prone). Bjoerndalen missed two targets and finished 16 seconds behind Greis. Athletes must ski once around a short penalty loop for each target they miss.

In today’s 10K, Bjoerndalen missed three targets, one prone and two standing, the latter two coming after he skied furiously to make up time but could not get his heart rate down to shoot accurately. That gives you some idea of how tough this sport can be.

Bjoerndalen’s Norwegian teammates, Halvar Hanevold and Frode Andresen, finished second and third.

Also noteworthy in Tuesday’s 10k was the disastrous performance by America’s one great hope for a biathlon medal, Jay Hakkinen. He finished a respectable 10th in the 20K on Saturday, the best-ever finish by an American. But in the 10K he fell apart, finishing 80th out of 90 competitors.

And how is my beloved Frau Disl doing? She’s off to a slow start.

Two Ruskies dominated the women’s 15K individual race on Sunday. Svetlana Ishmouratova took the gold, only missing one shot out of 20 on her second prone shooting, while teammate Olga Pyleva missed one target on her first prone shoot but skied slower and finished 45.5 seconds back. Germany’s Martina Glagow took the Bronze.

German Andrea Henkel finished fifth, Norwegian Liv Grete Poiree, who’s married to French biathlete Raphael Poiree, finished 10th. My Teutonic Titan of Marksmanship was 13th, more than three minutes behind Ishmouratova. The best finish by an American was Rachel Steer, who finished 42nd.

Funny story: When I spoke to Steer’s mother in Lake Placid for a story I was doing for The Wall Street Journal, she told me: When I tell people my daughter’s a biathlete, they think I’m talking about her sexuality.

Up next: The women’s 7.5K sprint on Thursday.