By Harald Zimmer
In each of the next two seasons, Tyumen in Western Siberia, Russia, is scheduled to host an International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup. This week, the new biathlon complex that has been mostly used for local events and invitational races so far is hosting the 2016 Open European Championships as a dress rehearsal.
Just ahead of the upcoming IBU World Championships in Oslo, Norway, from March 3-13, most of the best World Cup athletes did not make the long trip to Russia, allowing other athletes to shine there for a highlight of their season.
The “Pearl of Siberia” (Zhemchuzhina Sibiri) biathlon arena in the fairly remote location in the middle of large forests is impressive, with broad tracks, stands for thousands of spectators, many floodlights (so races can be held in the evening to also fit the broadcast schedules of TV networks in central Europe), and a large utility building with a mirrored glass front. Everything might be a bit smaller than the Russian biathlon venues in Khanty-Mansiysk or Sochi, but it is already on a similar level.
On Wednesday, competitions began with a 13.5-kilometer single mixed relay, a fairly new format that is not yet a part of Olympic Winter Games or IBU World Championships. It is somewhat comparable to a team sprint in cross-country, with one woman and one man teaming up and interchanging after a prone and a standing shooting, each skiing two legs for eight shooting stages overall.
Russia with Victoria Slivko and Anton Babikov, two athletes who have been successful on the IBU Cup this season, created a large gap to the rest of the field early on by shooting flawlessly on the first three legs, to the joy of the home crowd in the stands that were almost filled to capacity, an impressive audience for a second-tier championship and a midweek race.
Slivko, who hails from Tyumen, shot clean in all four of her shooting stages on a range that features a difficult approach coming out of a long downhill section (somewhat comparable to the World Cup in Ruhpolding, Germany, but even more pronounced), which makes it hard for athletes to control their heartbeat during the shooting.
This performance gave Russia the decisive edge to take the gold medal. Only on the final leg, Babikov had to react to changing winds, and required two spares each to hit all his prone and standing shooting targets. He preserved a lead of more than 30 seconds, crossing the line in a time of 36:59.0, with no penalties and four spares.
“When I was shooting, I did not feel the wind and had no idea how the rivals shot,” Slivko said, according to an IBU press release. “I was only doing my work and did not pay attention to the others.”
“I think it is a good sign for Russia to start with a gold medal,” her teammate Babikov said. “Just knew we have to do a good work, but before the competition our thoughts were more about the skies, what pair we have to choose, because with each day the weather is getting warmer and warmer. Sure, the home stadium gives the emotions, which you do not feel in the other places. I saw that there are many [local] people here, in some way it was hard, but on the other hand, it is a useful experience for us.”
Germany started with Luise Kummer, an athlete who appeared at three World Cup weekends this season, including the single mixed relay in Canmore, Alberta, where she placed seventh. On Wednesday her race got off to a bad start, when she broke a pole on the loop out of the stadium and lost contact with the top of the field until the first shooting.
After requiring two spares, she fell back 25.2 seconds behind Russia, and with another spare in her standing shooting she tagged off in sixth place. Her partner Matthias Dorfer moved up to third place, and Kummer was able to keep it there with a performance more in line with her usual standards on her second leg.
Dorfer went out for the anchor leg in a close competition with Sweden and Norway for the podium and with good skiing and a clean final shooting, secured the silver medal, 37.9 seconds behind Russia, with a team total of zero penalties and seven spares.
Norway with Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold and Christian Vetle Sjastad had been just out of the podium positions for the first three legs. But with just one spare on his anchor leg, Sjastad still managed to overtake Sweden’s Tobias Arwidson who shot fine with two spares in prone and a clean final standing shooting, but only skied the 17th fastest course time on his leg. Thus Norway was able to claim the bronze medal, 52.7 seconds behind the winner, with no penalties and six spares.
The Swedes with Arwidson and his partner Hanna Öberg, a gold medalist in sprint and pursuit at the Youth Junior World Championships earlier this season, had been in second position until the final leg, but fell behind Germany and Norway to finish fourth (+1:09.2) with no penalties and six spares.
These European Championships are “open” which means also countries outside of Europe can also participate. Some non-European countries, such as Australia, participated. The U.S. and Canada did not send any of their biathletes, most likely because of the upcoming World Championships in Oslo in a week, as well as the high travel costs to get to Tyumen.
Russia as the host entered a full team, including a few World Cup athletes, but the championships are also an important event for some other countries that place a high value on it to determine future rosters as well as financial support. Junior competitions are no longer included in the event, as they had been in prior seasons.
Later on Wednesday, with the new floodlights put to good use at 6 p.m. local time to illuminate the otherwise dark course through the forests, races continued with a 2 x 6 + 2 x 7.5 k mixed relay, with two women and two men exchanging, and all other rules like in a “traditional” relay.
Despite the popular mental image of a frosty Siberia, temperatures were still around freezing point and with low wind speeds — perfect conditions for biathlon.
The race was defined by crucial penalty laps, and a few countries opting to use some of their best athletes from the IBU World Cup, while most rather started members of their developmental teams.
To the excitement of the home crowd in the now even-better filled stands in Tyumen, the Russian team, with anchor Evgeniy Garanichev (an experienced biathlete who ranks eighth in the men’s overall World Cup standings) also came out on top in this race in a close fight with Slovakia for the gold, in a time of 1:10:56.3, with one penalty and nine spare rounds.
Initially it had not looked very good for the home team. Starter Anastasia Zagoruiko had a penalty lap in her standing shooting, handing off in 11th position and more than a minute behind. Her teammates Olga Iakushova (currently ranked third in the IBU Cup) and Matvey Eliseev (the IBU World Cup men’s leader) had to work hard to get Garanichev back into a position where he could even contend for the medals, much less the victory.
Second place went to Slovakia, a smaller biathlon nation that made good use of the lesser competition in this championship, by starting their four best available biathletes: Paulina Fialkova (ranked 32nd among women in the World Cup), Jana Gerekova (35th), Matej Kazar (37th for the men), and Martin Otcenas (72nd). Slovakia had no penalties and required just five spare rounds.
At the third exchange to Garanichev, Russia was still 42.2 seconds behind. Slovakia was in first place after the final shooting, but Garanichev came back on the course now only 5.9 seconds behind, chasing after Otcenas. On the last loop, Otcenas was overtaken but refused to be gapped, and tried to attack one final time out of Garanichev’s draft on the last downhill into the flat finish section, skating side by side with the Russian who did not use his poles and swung his arms wildly, which seemed not the ideal technique. But Slovakia’s brave fight ended with the silver medal, 0.1 seconds behind Russia as Garanichev lunged across the line first.
“I never was an anchor in the international starts before,“ Garanichev said, according to an IBU press release. “I was trying not to think about anything, was battling until the last meter and glad I could win at the finish line. When I left the final standing, I saw the back of the rival, so I tried to do my best to catch him right away and to overcome.”
Norway claimed bronze medal (+1:04.1) despite 12 spare rounds, with a team that mixed newcomers with an athlete with extensive World Cup experience, with 21-year-old Sigrid Bilstad Neraasen, Bente Landheim, 25, Henrik L’Abee-Lund, 29, and Håvard Bogetveit, 23. On the third leg, L’Abee-Lund, who has four World Cup podiums to his name and won a gold medal with the Norwegian relay at the 2013 World Championships, twice used all three spare rounds, but like his younger teammates, he managed to avoid the penalty lap.
Germany had been in first place throughout the race, fighting for the lead with Slovakia. Nadine Horchler, her younger sister Karolin Horchler (another athlete with multiple World Cup starts this season), and junior Matthias Bischl had moved the team into an excellent position by skiing fast — with the Horchlers posting the best course times on their legs- – and requiring only three spares combined. But in the final prone shooting, the experienced anchor Florian Graf (a Youth/Junior World Championships gold medalist, and member of Germany’s senior World Championship teams in 2012 and 2013) had three penalties, ending the team’s quest for gold.
Graf came back onto the track in third place with Norway’s Bogetveit nearby, and even managed to create a small gap again by only requiring one spare in his final standing shooting. But with his tired legs from the additional penalty laps, he had no chance against Norway’s anchor on the final loop in the fight for bronze, placing fourth and severely shaking his head in disappointment as he crossed the line, 1:13.7 behind the Russian winners, with a team total of three penalties and seven spares.
Races in Tyumen continue on Thursday with sprints for the women and men. Live races as well as replays can be streamed online: http://www.eurovisionsports.tv/ibu/