Biathlon is something of a niche sport in Canada these days, second last on Own the Podium's annual funding list — with funding decided based on how many medals Canada expects to win in future Olympic games. Compared to Europe, where tens of thousands of spectators go to races and millions more tune in on television, biathlon is just not on the national radar. At least, not yet.
Despite the sport's underdog status, it was a positive and energized crew of biathlon racers that turned out to Whistler Olympic Park last week for the biathlon national championships — the opening event of the Sea to Sky Nordic Festival. Spirits are high for good reason: Canada's World Cup level athletes have been making history recently, with Jean-Philippe Le Guellec winning a gold medal in the opening World Cup event and the men's relay team going on to place eighth at the World Championships. Athletes have also posted personal bests in many events, and qualified for a full eight spots, four men and four women, for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.
The consensus in the sport is that the Canadian biathlon program has turned a corner, and that funding and exposure — and results — will only increase as athletes continue to progress.
"We have to be patient," said Alberta's Nathan Smith, who kicked off the biathlon nationals with a win in the sprint event and a second place finish in pursuit. "Not everybody can come in and race at the World Cup level with the top guys, it takes years of work and we're just starting to see all that hard work pay off."
Four of the eight Olympic spots are already spoken for, and Biathlon Canada's high performance director Chris Lindsay said there are 18 to 20 candidates that are in the running for the remaining spots — including athletes that have already competed at the World Cup level or have been part of successful development teams competing one step down on the IBU Cup circuit.
"I think we've got good motivation going forward," he said. "There's a lot of drive on the team, especially with JP's win this year, that we can do this. It's not about us being a second-class country in biathlon anymore.
"It's going to be hard, we don't have a lot of advantages, but it's possible — everything is within reach. And if we did it once, get a guy on top of the podium, then we can do it again. It's been really positive and the energy level is really high at every level of the sport — all of the kids that came here from across Canada to race in the junior events believe we can do it."