KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — In an Olympics already beset by terrorist threats and security concerns , Tim Burke showed up armed and ready. Burke’s personal condition has been less than ideal in recent weeks, but he can report that his German-made .22-caliber Anschutz rifle arrived safe and sound.
There’s always that brief moment at baggage claim where Burke isn’t quite sure. As a biathlete, Burke totes his gun around the world for competition, not protection, but he’s still had the weapon confiscated at times, caught up in red tape other times or even lost in transit completely.
“We’re all set. Everything has been very smooth,” he said this week, shortly after emptying several rounds during a training session.
Truth is, the gun has been the least of Burke’s worries in the weeks leading up to his third Olympic Games. He had hoped to come here and challenge for the podium. The United States has never won an Olympic medal in the biathlon, and Burke once again represents the Americans’ best hope. But sickness has hampered his recent training and forced Burke to withdraw from the last two World Cup events. Thursday marked his first serious training session in more than two weeks.
He’s expected to compete in six events at these Winter Games, and Saturday’s 10-kilometer sprint might be his best shot at a medal. But even he has no idea what to expect.
“I can say this, I’m more rested than I’ve ever been before something like this,” Burke said with a chuckle.
Mountains of the Olympics
The picturesque biathlon course is located on a peak in the Western Caucasus. The elevation is nearly 5,000 feet, which could prompt heavier breathing than some lower-altitude courses. Biathlon combines cross-country skiing and shooting, which means steadiness is key. Heavy breathing and a high heart rate leads to missed targets.
To prep for the altitude, the U.S. team trained last month in Northern Italy near the Austrian border, but Burke missed out on most of it. He felt he had a great offseason, training around Lake Placid, N.Y., and enjoyed a good start to the World Cup season, reaching the podium in his second race of the year. But since Christmas, Burke has been hit with a stomach virus, then a cold, then a sinus infection.
He knows the curtailed Olympic training could impact his speed in these Winter Games, but he hopes his experience carries him through. Burke, 32, grew up near Lake Placid, has competed in biathlon since he was a teenager and has seen a bit of everything in the sport.
Entering the 2010 Olympics, Burke had become the first American to lead the World Cup standings, and big expectations accompanied him to the Vancouver Games. His results: a 45th-place finish, then a 47th, followed by a 46th and finally an 18th.
“That was the first time I really experienced a lot of attention from the U.S. media,” he said. “It was something I totally wasn’t used to. I feel like I did a bad job dealing with that. I got a little bit caught up in the story. I kind of lost focus of the things that helped me be successful and I focused more on the results.
“Now I’m just totally focused on the same exact things as when I’m in any other competition — the things that make me successful in the World Cup are what will make me successful here. That means not thinking about the results.”
Evolving sports of the Winter Olympics
Burke finished 10th in the 2012-13 World Cup overall standings and last year took silver in the men’s 20-kilometer individual race at the World Championships, making him the first American to reach the podium there in more than a quarter-century.
In a sport of intense discipline and sharp focus, Burke knows he can’t fret about things out of his control. As he navigates his way through six races these next couple of weeks, Burke also knows there’s a bit of a dark cloud hanging over his sport.
The International Biathlon Union recently announced the doping suspensions of a Lithuanian and two Russian biathletes, one of whom — Irina Starykh — was considered a medal contender for the host country.
The sport is an important one here and the national biathlon team is headed by Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire who also own the Brooklyn Nets.
Just as competitors prepared to take the biggest stage, the suspensions embarrassed the host nation and encouraged doubt and suspicion.
“It’s very disappointing to hear,” Burke said. “I’d hoped we were past that. When you see that going on with one of the biggest teams, that raises a red flag for everybody.
“Yes, it’s encouraging that they got caught, but they knew they’d be taking those tests. Clearly, they think they’re capable of beating them. It makes you wonder who exactly is beating them?”