This time, Team USA has a chance at biathlon medal in Winter Olympics

Since the 1924 advent of the Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, speed skating has provided a chest of 75 medals for Team USA. Since the Winter Games resumed after World War II in 1948, U.S. figure skating has thrived, winning 13 gold medals and...

Since the 1924 advent of the Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, speed skating has provided a chest of 75 medals for Team USA.

Since the Winter Games resumed after World War II in 1948, U.S. figure skating has thrived, winning 13 gold medals and at least one medal in each Games since.

And just since its inception in 1998, snowboarding has produced a mother lode of U.S. medals, including a men's half-pipe sweep in 2002 and five golds overall.

At the opposite end of the U.S. Olympic spectrum are the three Nordic sports: biathlon, cross-country skiing and Nordic combined.

Speaking of combined . . . the cumulative U.S. medal count for the three is one, Bill Koch's cross-country silver in 1976.


No wonder the mere possibility of several U.S. athletes competing for podium places in those disciplines in next month's Vancouver Olympics already has some considering the implications.

"There was a race between (Roald) Amundsen and (Robert) Scott to the South Pole," fourth-time Olympian Jay Hakkinen said during a recent conference call.

In referencing that race almost 100 years ago, Hakkinen's point was twofold -- to convey both historical significance and to acknowledge his chief competitor for U.S. biathlon supremacy, teammate Tim Burke, who has been on the World Cup podium three times this season in the sport that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting.

Asked who would play the winning role of Amundsen by getting to the Olympic podium first, Hakkinen laughed and said, "We'll find out in Vancouver."

In fact, they could "arrive" at the same time by way of the relay, which Hakkinen led after one leg at the 2006 Torino Games before the team faded.

"I kind of see the (first leg of the) Torino Relay as more or less an omen of how we're going to do in Vancouver," Hakkinen said.

But while Hakkinen has been the recent face of the U.S. version of the sport -- such as it is has been -- Burke has demonstrated more of the right stuff to claim an individual medal.

Twice this season, he has worn the yellow bib that goes to the overall World Cup points leader. No U.S. biathlete ever before had donned it, leaving executive director Max Cobb declaring him part of "the Royal Family of Biathlon" after he first broke the barrier.


His breakthrough, Burke suggested, was part of a ripple effect in Nordic sports. When Bill Demong of the USA won a Nordic combined world title in 2009, Burke said, it "set the way and showed us it is possible for an American athlete to be at the top in a (traditionally European) sport."

Meanwhile, Burke's own achievements are resonating, as teammate Lowell Bailey noted in a roundabout way as he described the "head-to-toe turquoise" that the team will wear in Vancouver.

Even so, he said, laughing, "Having (had) someone on our team (wear) the yellow bib . . . you can still wear turquoise and be proud of your team."

Simply being in position to talk this way is light years from where the U.S. biathlon team was just as long ago as the 1998 Nagano Games, which Hakkinen, 32, termed "a complete disaster."

But enhanced USOC funding, despite some dips in between, helped revitalize the movement, said Cobb, USA Biathlon's executive director since 2006.

With a boost of about $1 million this season from the USOC, he said, the budget has gone from "the order of $250,000 to $300,000" in 1998 to a little over $2 million now.

"Frankly, it's not possible to run an Olympic program with (the previous) funding," Cobb said, adding that the budget still isn't comparable to those of some other countries. "It's not a blank check, but ... I think that was a major turnaround."

The funding has provided an infusion of direct athlete support and incentive money, he said, enabling athletes to stay in the sport longer and participate in world-class training camps.


It's also allowed the governing body to hire and retain more prominent mentors, beginning in 2006 with head coach Per Nilsson of Sweden, who later hired shooting coach Armin Auchentaller of Italy.

The new foundation began to pay off last March, when Jeremy Teela became the first U.S. biathlete in 17 years to medal at a World Cup event.

"Biathlon is very, very coaching intensive," Cobb said, adding, "I would say, for our team, they are probably the best coaches in the world."

Burke has said that he only thought he knew what training meant before Nilsson's arrival. Hakkinen added that Auchentaller in particular has elevated their skills by breaking down the shooting elements into "little pieces, analyzing each piece and then (putting) it all together again."

Burke, 28 next week, had to be put back together again to stand where he is today. In 2002, he had major hip surgery and wasn't sure he could return to biathlon. Then he was forced to sit out the 2004 season with mononucleosis, the energy-sapping viral infection.

Now he's part of a newfound energy in U.S. biathlon, and the Lake Placid, N.Y., native hopes he can make good on another Olympic miracle to rival the 1980 one.

Not to mention having a medal to compare with those of his girlfriend, two-time Olympic gold medalist Andrea Henkel of Germany.

"Personally, I really thrive on being the underdog," he said, adding, "Every time I hear Americans can't be successful in biathlon, that's all I've needed."

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