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Biathlon Wants More Recognition

By Denis D. Gray
Associated Press Writer
Friday, February 13, 1998; 2:10 a.m. EST

NOZAWA ONSEN, Japan (AP) — Some think it's played on horseback. Others are sure they remember it from the Summer Olympics. Biathlon, in short, is hardly an international glamor sport.

But competitors in the Winter Olympics' martial art see themselves as Spartans of the snow. They believe the sport's grueling shifts from explosive power to intense mental focus should command more attention, and more rewards.

In places like the former Soviet Union, Scandinavia and Germany, biathlon's profile has long been high, its stars well-known although not household names like those of soccer and ice hockey.

Thanks to television, the sport's popularity is on the rise in Europe, said Anders Besseberg, president of the International Biathlon Union. About 50 hours of coverage were devoted to it in Germany, Norway and on the Eurosport channel this season, about five times the exposure of a decade ago. Ratings are high.

Just as he hopes the Winter Olympics in Japan will boost Asian awareness and ability — the Japanese and Chinese women are already formidable — Besseberg says the next games in Utah should do the same for North Americans.

``If people knew (biathlon), they would have greater respect for the competitors,'' says Terry Sheahan, the Canadian team leader. ``What it takes to be a good biathlete is extraordinary.''

Combining cross-country skiing and shooting, biathlon has been compared to running a mile, then trying to thread a needle. Following steep ascents, the heart racing at 180 beats plus a minute, biathletes must rapidly regain control over body and mind to strike their targets.

``You read about someone competing with a cold, or someone who's just had a terrible emotional problem and still winning a gold in some sport,'' says Kristina Sabasteanski, 28, of Richmond, Vermont. ``In biathlon that would almost never happen.''

Nonetheless, the sport had trouble making it into the Olympics.

In the late 1950s, International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage regarded biathlon as an artificial sport designed purely to suit the military.

But on one long airplane flight, Swedish promoter Gen. Sven Thofelt related how prehistoric man hunted on skis to feed his family. Olympic lore has it that, tears in his eyes Brundage gave the nod, and biathlon made its debut in the 1960 Olympic Games at Squaw Valley, California.

Along with hunting, the sport traces its origins to winter warfare. By the end of the 19th century, soldiers on skis were found in Scandinavia, Russia, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. During the Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40, outnumbered Finns used their ski-and-shoot prowess to inflict heavy casualities on the Soviet invaders.

The sport retains its military links. Armed forces around the world offer top biathletes, men and women, support ranging from shorter-term service in the United States to lifetime careers with many perks in Germany and Russia.

But in most countries, biathletes who are not world-class must struggle.

``It's not like ice hockey or football,'' says coach Wolfgang Pichler of Sweden, where the sport is popular. ``Many have to work in summer and winter to save enough for winter training.''

Sabasteanski says more sponsors would emerge if the sport's popularity increased in the United States. That way, biathletes wouldn't have to subsidize their training by waiting on tables for four years like she did.

``Sometimes you'd like more press and have more people know what the sport is all about,'' she says. ``But none of us are in it for the money. It's the challenge. We feel we are a little unique and different. We don't march to the same beat.''

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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