By ERIC WILLEMSEN
2014-01-23 11:22 PM
Starting in his sixth Olympics, veteran Ole Einar Bjoerndalen aims to help Norway top the biathlon medals table at Sochi again, just like four years ago.
Germany and Russia are likely to become the Scandinavians' toughest opponents over the 11 events, which includes a mixed competition for the first time.
The three nations have dominated Olympic biathlon by winning 46 of the 64 events since the sport made its debut at the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley.
A record quadruple gold medalist in 2002, Bjoerndalen is the most decorated biathlete at major championships. After struggling for a couple of seasons, the 39-year-old Norwegian surged back to form in recent pre-Olympic events.
For the relay competition, Bjoerndalen will team up with the likes of Emil Hegle Svendsen, who has won four World Cup events so far this season -- a feat only matched by Martin Fourcade of France.
On the women's side, Norway's hopes are boosted by the dominance of overall World Cup champion Tora Berger, who won the Olympic individual race four years ago and has since added eight world titles, including four in team events.
By contrast, the United States are hoping to pick up its first ever medal in the sport, which combines cross-country skiing with rifle shooting.
Here are five things to know about biathlon at the Sochi Olympics.
LAST SHOT FOR GLORY
Once nicknamed "The Cannibal" because of his unstoppable hunger for titles, Ole Einar Bjoerndalen is still eager to extend his collection of silverware. The Norwegian has won 50 medals at major biathlon championships -- including six golds and 11 in total at the Olympics. Bjoerndalen will turn 40 before the Sochi Games -- his last Olympics, by his own account -- but said in a recent interview that "I don't feel old."
In Vancouver four years ago, Bjoerndalen missed out on an individual medal. That, however, could be different in Sochi.
"I had two, three bad winters," Bjoerndalen said. "But this year I am enjoying it again as I am able to attack. ... For me, only the first place counts, you can forget the rest. That's the way it is in sports."
One of the most popular winter sports in Russia, biathlon might give the home fans plenty to cheer about. The events are staged in the 7,500-capacity Laura Biathlon & Ski Complex. Since 1960, the Soviet Union and Russia have combined won a leading 18 Olympic gold medals. Olga Zaitseva, part of the winning relay teams in 2006 and 2010, leads the women's squad, while on the men's side Anton Shipulin is regarded a main medal contender alongside 2010 mass start champion Evgeny Ustyugov.
The Russian biathlon federation's target is winning two events in Sochi, according to president Mikhail Prokhorov during this week's team presentation. "The plan we voiced two years ago - two gold medals - stays in force," Prokhorov said. "If we get more than two medals then it will be a little heroic act."
The United States has announced its largest Olympic biathlon squad in over two decades, but virtually all media attention has so far gone to the Barnes sisters. Initially Tracy Barnes made the U.S. squad while her twin sister Lanny failed to do so after falling ill in the final qualifying event in Italy. However, Tracy decided to give up her spot to let her five minutes older sibling Lanny in.
"I think this has been really motivating for Lanny," Tracy Barnes told The Associated Press. "I think she has got renewed motivation and she's really excited. She's got a mission and she's going to be training pretty hard, preparing for these games."
Lanny Barnes, whose best Olympic result is 15th in the women's 4x6-kilometer relay in 2006, might not be a main podium candidate but three-time Olympians Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey hope they can finally earn their country's first ever Olympic biathlon medal.
MIX IT UP
Since its Olympic inception in 1960 with a men's individual 20-kilometer race, biathlon has rapidly expanded. New formats have been introduced on a regular basis though it wasn't until 1992 that the first women's events were held. Another 22 years later, the Sochi Games will see the first mixed competition with relay teams consisting of two women and two men. The women ski a 6-kilometer course while the men go 7.5K, with two shooting stations for everyone -- one standing, one prone.
The format has already been included in the annual biathlon world championships since 2005, with Norway winning the world title for the past three seasons.
HIGH HOPES ON HENKEL
Magdalena Neuner became the star of women's biathlon at the Vancouver Games, winning two golds and a silver at individual races. Neuner retired two years later, leaving a gap that the Germans are still trying to fill. This World Cup season, no German biathlete reached the podium of an individual race until the final event before Sochi. Last weekend in Antholz, Italy, veteran Andrea Henkel finished second in the sprint before winning the pursuit the following day.
"I felt really well so I took a lot of time at the shooting," the 36-year-old Henkel told German television after her victory. "Being confident at the shooting is important for Sochi."
Henkel won the 15-kilometer race in Salt Lake City in 2002 for her only individual Olympic medal -- so far.