A new Olympic event, the biathlon mixed relay, will give weak biathlon countries a better chance for a medal in Sochi next month. Canada, at best a middling power in the classic old sport that combines cross-country skiing with shooting, could not be happier.
That's because the mixed relay requires just two men and two women. The regular biathlon relays are composed of four-man and four-women teams. The top biathlon countries – Norway, Germany, Russia, France, Sweden, Italy – have no problem fielding four world-class male and female biathletes, an impossibility for any other country.
But strapping the boards onto just two top athletes of each gender is an entirely different story. "The construction of this new event allows lesser countries to be more competitive," says Chris Lindsay, the high-performance director of Biathlon Canada, which is sending eight biathletes to the Sochi Games. "We would have one or two real, A-level athletes but not the depth of field for another two."
The mixed biathlon relay is one of 12 new events in eight Winter Olympic sports. The idea is to give the Games a fresher, more women-friendly look that should appeal to younger – and bigger – audiences. The other new events include women's ski jumping and the luge mixed team relay.
While the mixed biathlon relay will give all the competing nations an extra chance for medals, the opportunity is especially crucial for Canada. That's because Canada's biathletes are starved for funding and in danger of getting shut out by Own the Podium (OTP), the organization that combines government and private money to sponsor athletes.
OTP rewards the winners, not the losers; the more podium finishes you get, the more loot comes your way. Since Canada has not won an Olympic biathlon medal since the glorious Myriam Bédard era – she won a bronze and two golds in the 1992 and 1994 Games – the biathletes can pretty much kiss away what little money they do get unless Sochi produces, at minimum, a top-five finish in any of the nine biathlon events. "If we don't get a top five, we can't even enter into negotiations for continued funding," Lindsay says.
Canada's biathletes received a grand total of $175,000 for the 2013-14 season, the smallest amount that OTP awards to the 11 winter sports. Canada's biathletes are largely self-funding, which explains their novel money-raising techniques, such as the 2009 Bold Beautiful Biathlon nude calendar produced by Canada's female biathletes.
The biathlon is more popular in Europe, where it draws big crowds, than in North America. European audiences are attracted to its compelling mix of endurance and speed (the skiing) and precision (the shooting). The best athletes find the perfect balance between speed and shooting accuracy; if they ski too fast, their overworked hearts and lungs make it difficult to hold the .22-calibre rifle steady.
Still, the military-inspired sport – it was known as the "military patrol" in the first Winter Olympics, in 1924 – could use a tweak, which is where the mixed biathlon rely comes in.
The event, which is to take place on Feb. 19, starts with the women. The first women does three, two-kilometre loops, which includes two shooting stops, the first prone, the second standing. She then hands off to the second women who repeats the circuit. She in turn hands off to the first male team member, and so on. Each men's loop is half a kilometre longer. In each case, the shooting target is 50 metres away and each competitor has eight bullets for five targets. Each target missed requires the competitor to ski a 150-metre penalty loop.
While new to the Olympics, the mixed biathlon relay has been a standard feature of World Cup events and championships for a decade. It has been a hit, partly because the event narrows the gap between the best and the worst teams. Canada was one of the biathlon countries that pushed for its inclusion in Sochi.
The Canadians will probably wait until the last minute to decide which four biathletes will compete in the mixed relay to ensure the team has the optimal competitors for that particular day. The only athlete already certain is Jean-Philippe Le Guellec, of Shannon, Que, who has had a fine run in the past few seasons.
A member of the national team since 2003, he placed sixth in the men's sprint in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and won a World Cup sprint race in December of 2012 in Ostersund, Sweden. A probable female contender is Zina Kocher, of Red Deer, Alta., who is the only Canadian woman since Bédard to have won a World Cup biathlon medal.
The goal, says Lindsay, is a podium finish in any of the biathlon events in Sochi. The future of Canada's cash-short biathletes depends on it.