When can Van Ho host biathlon, ski World Cups?
LAKE PLACID — Lake Placid organizers want to bring the world’s best Nordic skiers and biathletes back to Mount Van Hoevenberg now that New York state has invested $80 million upgrading the 1980 Winter Olympic venue to what is expected to be World Cup caliber.
The hope in U.S. and Canadian cross-country ski and biathlon circles is to establish a North American leg of each sport’s annual World Cup tour.
“When Europe brings everything across the Atlantic — its athletes, production, infrastructure for a World Cup — a lot of times, to have a North American period makes a lot of sense,” said Kris Cheney-Seymour, the Nordic programs and event manager for the New York state Olympic Regional Development Authority.
That idea may sound nice to North Americans, but it would likely have to overcome some skepticism from Europeans. Lake Placid now has the venue, but can it draw the spectators European sports organizers want and expect?
“Spectators are one of the tricky things,” Cheney-Seymour admitted, but he believes it can be done by growing family ski programs locally and connecting with ski clubs in Quebec, New England and New York City — by growing the sport locally and connecting with like-minded people.
“If we can captivate the imaginations” of those folks, he said, “then we can bring the people.”
Max Cobb, president and CEO of the U.S. Biathlon organization, said most biathlon events in Europe and Russia draw at least 10,000 spectators a day.
“In Germany on the weekends they have 30,000 spectators,” he said.
Not in the U.S. — although an estimated 4,200 did show up to Soldier Hollow, Utah, for a biathlon World Cup in 2019, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. Cobb called that “a great day.” He said only a few hundred people came out when Lake Placid hosted biathlon World Championships in 1987. It was like that, too, when Lake Placid hosted a biathlon World Cup event in 2004.
Van Hoevenberg’s new stadium can hold 5,000 spectators, Cheney-Seymour said. He hopes to fill it not only by drawing on local families and ski clubs within driving distance, but also by working to connect with outdoorsy adults in general.
“The Adirondacks has easily the 5,000 people we need to come and cheer on cross-country skiing — easily,” he said. “Captivating the backcountry skiers and the person who skis the slides and the person who’s skiing on the Bloomingdale Bog road to come and celebrate winter and sport, a facet of what we all love to do here, is something that is important for all of the region to invest in.”
Van Hoevenberg is already booked to host the biathlon national championships next March, and Cheney-Seymour said he said he would like it to also host IBU Cup events, one step down from the International Biathlon Union World Cup.
In February it was announced that Soldier Hollow, Utah, will host an IBU World Cup event in 2024. So when might Van Hoevenberg host one?
The answer is 2026 or later, according to Cobb.
First, he said, Van Hoevenberg would need to get an IBU venue license in order to bid for IBU events. Getting that requires paperwork to show how the new venue meets modern top-tier standards. Then IBU officials would have to come to Lake Placid to assess it personally. Cobb said Van Hoevenberg should pass that test.
“The venue is absolutely built to the A-license standard,” he said.
Cobb speaks from experience. He has been involved in the sport since 1983, when he showed up in Lake Placid for his first training camp as an athlete. He’s worked for U.S. Biathlon since 1989 and been its head since 2010.
Once Van Hoevenberg gets a venue license, the next bidding opportunity for major IBU events would be for the 2026-2030 seasons, with applications due in 2024, according to Cobb. There is no guarantee Lake Placid would be chosen, no matter how capable the venue is.
“The sport is incredibly popular in Europe, and it’s very competitive to get these events,” Cobb said. “They are seen as moneymakers for both the community and the host club.”
Still, Cobb said it’s “conceivable” to have a North American leg of the tour with stops at Lake Placid, Solider Hollow and Canmore, Alberta (a 1988 Winter Olympic venue).
Another thing IBU considers is how good a potential host country’s biathletes are, Cobb said. Therefore, if Lake Placid wants to host, it would help for American and Canadian biathletes to become more competitive.
“I think we do need to have a team putting up some really strong performances to urge that along,” Cobb said.
Only one North American has ever won Olympic medals in biathlon — Myriam Bedard of Canada won three in 1992 and ’94. However, Americans have done better in the last decade. Four of the U.S.’s six World Championship medals were won in the last eight years, as were 16 of its 32 other World Cup medals. Susan Dunklee, the country’s most successful female biathlete ever, is still active, as are Claire Egan and Sean Doherty, who have also stood on World Cup podiums.
A biathlon World Cup event would give fantastic TV exposure to Lake Placid due to biathlon’s popularity in Europe. That 2019 World Cup in Utah — not a World Championship but the kind of competition that happens every week in the sport — drew 50 million TV viewers, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. A typical NFL game draws 14.9 million, according to Neilson.
It’s not always so easy to compare statistics, since biathlon viewership is often counted by hours viewed while U.S. sports are counted in the number of viewers, but still, biathlon’s TV numbers are considerable — and trending up. This year’s NFL Super Bowl drew 92 million viewers, down from the 2015 record of 114.4 million, according to Neilson, but this year’s biathlon World Championships drew a record 160 million hours watched, up 7% from 150 million last year, according to Eurovision Sport.
Meanwhile, Lake Placid is the U.S. biathlon team’s home base for off-season training, and Van Hoevenberg.
In March 2020 Minneapolis was supposed to host the first cross-country skiing World Cup race in the U.S. in 20 years, but it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Could Lake Placid’s new venue host one?
Cheney-Seymour hopes so, although it, too, would be competitive. He’s sure Minnesota is eager to host another before that state’s native daughter Jessie Diggins retires. Diggins topped the sport’s overall rankings this World Cup season after winning a gold medal at the 2018 Olympics with relay teammate Kikkan Randall.
(Correction: An earlier version of this article said Minneapolis hosted a cross-county skiing World Cup last year, but that event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The News regrets the error.)