It All Begins with …the Mixed Relay
|29.02.2012, Ruhpolding / IBU Info JK|
|First Medals on the Line|
|The 2012 IBU World Championships officially kick off this evening with the opening Ceremonies in Champions Park. However, for the teams, these Championships begin tomorrow at 15:30 CET with the mixed relay. The first Gold, Silver and Bronze medals will be draped around the necks of the top three teams later that evening.
This mixed relay competition is not just a warm-up for the weekend schedule with the sprint/pursuit double on consecutive days. It has developed into one of the most interesting, yet complex competitions in biathlon. At its early stages back in the mid-2000s, it was almost an afterthought with nations using it as an opportunity sometimes to give second-level athletes a World Cup start. Everything changed at 2009 IBU World Championships in Pyeongchang, when more than just a smattering of the top athletes filled the spots on the relay teams. In that competition, France won the title with a team consisting of Olympic medalists Vincent Defrasne and Sylvie Becaert, supported by upcoming stars Marie Laure Brunet and Simon Fourcade. From that point on, the competitions have gotten stronger each year.
Last year, when the mixed relay took its spot as the opening competition on the World Championships schedule, Norway’s star-studded line-up of Tarjei Boe, Emil Hegle Svendsen, Ann Kristin Flatland and Tora Berger won the Gold medal.
Mixed Relay Trend: France
To date this season, the complexity of the mixed relay has shown up. At Hochfilzen, Russia came out on top, followed by Czech Republic and France. All three nations had basically their best team available in the stadium that day. The second competition this season, a couple of weeks ago in Kontiolahti was another story. For a variety of reasons including fatigue and the extreme cold, many of the teams held out their best, opening the door for others. The strong French team was Fourcade-less, but still won in a convincing manner, followed by Ukraine and Slovakia, who had one of those days when everything went perfectly. In looking at last season and the two competitions so far this season, there is one trend that cannot be ignored; France has been on the podium in the every mixed relay.
That brings things up to the World Championships mixed relay tomorrow. This competition will be a barn-burner, with more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie mystery novel. A record thirty teams will toe the starting line in the Chiemgau Arena and every one will be going for the Gold.
Three Teams Full of Medalists
A glance at three teams sums up the complexion this two-woman, two-man competition on Thursday. Norway will start Svendsen, Ole Einar Björndalen, Berger, and Synnøve Solemdal. Russia has Olga Vilukhina, Olga Zaitseva, Dmitry Malyshko, and Anton Shipulin. France’s squad is Marie Laure Brunet, Marie Dorin Habert, Simon Fourcade and Martin Fourcade. Seven of these athletes have Olympic medals in their trophy cases; all twelve have Championship medals, either European or Youth and Junior or World Championships. That is just 10% of the teams in the starting field! Virtually every other big name in biathlon will be trying to help their team topple these top squads. Any further speculation about which of the big names will light up the stage at Thursday evenings’ Awards Ceremony would be futile. As Björndalen said after unexpectedly winning the Kontiolahti pursuit, “…everything is possible in biathlon.”
There was a consensus when talking to several coaches about the upcoming mixed relay. Slovenia’s Uros Velepec called it “a great way to start the Championships. Everyone will get a chance to race in front of the big crowd. It will take away the nerves before the weekend’s sprints.”
Another part of the mixed relay puzzle, as in all biathlon competitions is the shooting component. In looking at last year’s World Championship, plus the two mixed relays this season, none of the teams had a penalty. At the same time, only one team had more than eight time-consuming spare rounds, France, earlier this year at Hochfilzen. Both the Hochfilzen and Kontiolahti competitions were won by teams with five spare rounds. The Czech Republic used just three spares in Hochfilzen! As the competition develops tomorrow, using the spare rounds total will be a good early indication of podium potential among the top 5-6 teams. As that number balloons beyond six or seven, the medal prospects will drop accordingly, regardless of the athletes on the tracks.
Just as Good as Ours
The mixed relay has come full circle from an afterthought competition to a prize coveted by every team, big or small. After ticking off the names on the Russian team, Women’s Head Coach Wolfgang Pichler agreed that the Russian squad was formidable, but added, “There are five or six teams just as good as ours, but what do you expect…it is the World Championships.”