Looks can be deceiving.
Cesana San Sicario seems like it could not possibly be a more laidback place. Surrounded by snowy Alpine mountains, dotted with forests and isolated country houses, it all says serenity.
It's anything but. Walking down a narrow pedestrian passage connecting the Olympic venue with the main road, you hear the sound before seeing the colorful flags marking the site. It sounds like someone built a soccer stadium in the middle of the Italian Alps and decided to have the World Cup final there, that's how loud it is.
But it's no soccer match, it's the Olympic biathlon competition. The event is the 10-km. sprint, and German and Norwegian fans are partying in full force, even though it's only 1 p.m. The Norwegians have come to watch the legendary biathlete, Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, who won four golds at Salt Lake City in 2002. The Germans are hoping someone will ruin the Norwegian celebration.
The biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, originates in Norway, where, in order to survive, people had to hunt while making their way through snow.
At the beginning of the 19th century the first recorded competitions took places across Scandinavia, before the sport was adopted by the military, especially Germany's.
The 6,000-seat stands are covered with German and Norwegian flags. The Russian camp, third in size, tries desperately to match up, but with no success.
"During the winter time, this is the most popular sport to watch on TV in Germany," says a German journalist, "although not many people actually practice this sport."
"People usually get familiar with that sport in places that have Nordic ski," added Jay Hakinnen, 28, an American biathlete in his third Olympic performance. "They start with cross-country, and when they develop good skiing skills they get familiar with the rifle. If they like it, they switch [to this] sport."
Which is exactly what Hakinnen himself did, with a little help from a year spent in Norway when he was 16.
The German journalists are actually slightly disappointed. In Germany, they say, even smaller competitions manage to bring over 20,000 fans out. However, for those not accustomed to watching biathlon, the turnout was almost overwhelming.
In the 10-km. sprint, competitors leave the starting line, one at a time, every 30 seconds and then ski 3 1 /3 loops of the circuit three times. There are two rounds of shooting in between the circuits, one in the prone position and one standing. They shoot five times in each position and for every target missed they ski a 150-meter penalty loop.
The shooting range is located in the center of the loop and the audience is seated along one side of the venue, facing the targets. A big screen is situated next to the shooting range, showing the fans a close-up of the shooter. When a competitor is shooting, the fans forget about nationality and shout in perfect synchronization with every target hit.
The two announcers describing the event are part of the action. They yell, they describe every move with bursts of excitement - and they do it in three languages: English, Italian and German.
And if the combination of the partying fans, high-paced competition and enthusiastic announcers isn't enough, the upbeat music from the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack booms across the venue, to make sure the tension never drops.
"It is an extremely exciting sport!" claims Hakinnen, his eyes shining, even minutes after completing a disappointing performance. "It is incredibly challenging, both mentally and physically, because you have to switch from sprinting to targeting and you can't miss if you want to win. It has so many variables."
This time it ended like it started: between the Germans and the Norwegians. Germany's Sven Fischer won his first Olympic gold in his fourth Olympic appearance, while Norway captured the silver and the bronze and had their hero, Bjoerndalen, finishing only 12th. With four medals in the biathlon competition so far, but no gold, the Norwegian journalists have the luxury of being dissatisfied. Their medalists, however, don't share that notion.
"Sven is fantastic. I can do nothing but take my hat off to him," was a sentiment shared by nearly all the competitors. The biathlete must possess an internal sense of calm to go with the loud atmosphere of the competition.
This, Fischer said, creates a rare balance. "It is important that your body and brain are in good harmony. When the harmony is gone, you know it's time for you to go home."
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