Aiming for Gold
Will two local biathletes medal in Sochi?
by Phil Johnson
No American has ever won an Olympic medal in a biathlon event. Lowell Bailey, from Lake Placid, and Tim Burke, from Paul Smiths, could change that in Sochi, Russia, this February.
Bailey and Burke are seasoned world-class athletes who will be competing in their third Winter Olympics. They have known one another for more than 20 years and they train together just about every day. They’ve experienced success against the the same athletes they will face in the Games: last season Burke won a silver medal in the 20K individual event at the World Championships in the Czech Republic. Bailey had several top-ten showings on the 2012–2013 World Cup circuit. And both men are in their early 30s, when the combination of physical capacity and racing savvy is typically at its peak.
But in biathlon, external factors can sometimes affect the outcome, as happened during the sprint event in Vancouver four years ago. The U.S. team that included Burke and Bailey was expected to contend for medals. Then, after the ﬁrst competitors had started, it began snowing heavily. Course conditions deteriorated. “Early starters won,” says Burke. “If you were not early, you had no chance. We weren’t early.”
“Two years before those Games, I knew exactly the date of that race,” recalls Bailey. “It took a long time to get over the fact that our effort was undone by a random event.”
The Olympic sport of biathlon is a marriage of cross-country skiing and shooting. It originated 150 years ago in Scandinavia as a combination of recreation and national defense. Known then as Military Patrol, the sport was a part of what became the ﬁrst Winter Olympics, in Chamonix, France, in 1924. It was dropped to a demonstration event in 1928, and there was no biathlon at Lake Placid in 1932. The sport became part of the Olympic schedule once again in 1960 in Squaw Valley, California. Biathlon for women was added in 1992.
Today there are four individual events and two relays for both men and women. In each, the competitors race on skis, stopping at the range for shooting (two or four rounds of ﬁve targets each, depending on the event) while standing or prone. Their .22-caliber riﬂes must weigh at least 7.7 pounds. For every missed shot, a penalty loop of 150 meters is added to the skiing (except the 20K individual race, where a minute is added for each miss). Scoring is based on elapsed time.
More than a decade ago, biathlon ofﬁcials, concerned about the diminishing appeal of their sport, altered the course layout to make it more television-friendly. By changing from skiing trails in the woods to open loops always visible to the camera, TV viewers can see the entire competition. Biathlon is now one of the most popular televised sports in the world, especially in Europe.
Biathletes are more likely to be cross-country skiers who take up shooting than vice-versa. “Make no mistake about it. This is an endurance sport,” says Bailey. “You have to shoot well but ﬁrst you must deal with the long-distance-skiing question of ‘How much hurt can I take?’”
Bailey and Burke grew up competing against one another in local cross-country-ski leagues. Both tried nordic combined, (ski jumping and cross-country racing), but neither could master the intricacies of jumping. “I spent more time on the ground than in the air,” recalls Burke.
Bailey just missed making the 2002 U.S. Olympic Biathlon Team, which included veteran competitor Curt Schreiner, from the town of Day. (Schreiner now coaches at a biathlon course on his family property near Great Sacandaga Lake.) Burke, six months younger than Bailey, was still eligible for junior competitions, so he focused his attention there.
Bailey left the team to study at the University of Vermont, but rejoined in 2005, in time to reunite with Burke for their ﬁrst Olympics, in Turin, Italy.
U.S. results in international competitions were notably unspectacular. After the 2006 Games, Per Nilsson, from Sweden, was brought in as head coach. “I didn’t know what training hard was all about until he came,” says Bailey.
Burke and Bailey are full-time biathletes, supported ﬁnancially by the Biathlon Federation, the U.S. Olympic Committee and sponsors. They train six days a week at the Olympic Training Center in the off-season.
With the exception of occasional trips to train on snow at high elevation, Burke and Bailey and other members of the U.S. Biathlon Team—including 29-year-old Annelies Cook, from Saranac Lake—were in Lake Placid until November. Then it was off to Europe for competitions prior to the Games in Sochi, where the team competed in an Olympic test event last February. The Olympic ski trails there were very challenging, according to Burke. “The courses were unusually steep for biathlon,” he says. “I hope we don’t see races won or lost because of crashes.”
Burke and Bailey are conﬁdent they are capable of medals. But these are the Olympics, and the pressure is undeniable. “A good effort doesn’t trump a medal,” says Bailey. “The public focuses on medals. The U.S. Olympic Committee focuses on medals. That is what sponsors want to see.”