By Andrew Mitchell
Of all the Olympic and Paralympic disciplines, biathlon has one of the longest histories. Its origins probably go back more than 250 years, with the first recorded competition taking place between Norwegian soldiers on skis in 1767.
Today it remains hugely popular, attracting massive crowds and a large television audience in Europe. Because of the wide-open nature of every competition — skiers get penalty laps or penalty time when they miss shots — the winner is never decided until the very end of the race.
In Canada and North America biathlon is less popular, but with the Winter Games in Utah in 2002 and in Vancouver and Whistler in 2010, the sport is finally past a grass roots stage. Clubs that were originally founded to promote and manage cross-country skiing have expanded to include biathlon programs, and offer them to younger and younger skiers.
Despite the fact that an Olympic biathlon facility is being constructed in the Callaghan Valley, Whistler and the Sea to Sky region do not yet have an organized biathlon program — although that will change in the New Year.
“Right now we’re trying to coordinate activities and the interest among the public,” said Patrick Saintsbury, who is helping to spearhead the development of a local biathlon program along with the Pemberton Wildlife Association. He does not do biathlon himself, but was approached for the job by friends in the Prince George area who are working to implement a biathlon program in the northern city.
According to Saintsbury, a biathlon program would meet a couple of different goals. The first is to grow the sport, sowing the seeds for a successful Olympic program. Canada has had some success in the sport in the past, mostly based on the strength of Myriam Bedard’s career in the 1990s, but it remains one of the country’s weakest Winter Games events.
The second goal of the program is to create a pool of volunteers, trained officials, and events programmers in the lead-up to 2010, as the Callaghan Nordic Centre prepares for the Games by hosting a series of national and international biathlon test events.
The core of the program will be something called the Biathlon Bears, a provincial biathlon course similar to the popular Jackrabbits cross-country skiing programs. The program would be geared toward kids aged 10 to 14 who have an interest in cross-country skiing and are interested in target shooting. At that age most kids use B.B. guns or laser rifles “that are a little more fragile than regular rifles, so are used less often,” said Saintsbury.
A biathlon club would serve the entire Sea to Sky corridor, including Squamish and Pemberton. Saintsbury has already met with parents from Pemberton, where there is a successful cross-country program — the Spud Valley Nordics — and says there was a lot of support. The Pemberton Wildlife Association is also working to create a biathlon course and shooting range at their tenured land at Suicide Hill.
“I had about 14 parents who were prepared to sign their kids up right then if the club existed,” he said. “I don’t know about Whistler or Squamish yet, so it will probably be after Christmas and maybe spring before we have anything underway and a coordinated program in three different communities.”
Saintsbury says the biathlon programs will have support from both the provincial and national sport organizations, as well as from the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) for the 2010 Winter Games through its sport legacies mandate.
Given the Olympic facilities being built in the Callaghan, Saintsbury believes there is a future for biathlon in Sea to Sky.
“Biathlon has the second largest audience in Europe next to soccer, with tens of thousands of people showing up to events just about everywhere there is snow,” he said. “It’s not uncommon to have 40,000 people in the stands at a World Cup event.
“We’re just hoping to introduce a little of that excitement for the sport to people here. I think once the words are out kids will be interested to give it a try. It’s not just racing your guts out on your skis, but you also get to lay down in the snow and shoot at targets while trying to keep the gun steady. There’s a bit of a joy in doing it, hearing the ‘ping’ when you hit the target.”
Parents who are interested in enrolling their kids in a biathlon program, or in helping to get the program off the ground, are asked to contact Patrick Saintsbury at email@example.com or call 604-935-9114.