Elite international competition returns to Soldier Hollow for first time since 2002 | ParkRecord.com

Elite international competition returns to Soldier Hollow for first time since 2002

On Thursday morning, Soldier Hollow was bustling as it seldom has in the last 17 years.

For the first time since hosting the 2002 Winter Games, top international biathletes flocked to the Midway venue, this time to compete in the BMW IBU Biathlon World Cup.

The temporary bleachers were full and the parking lot was nearing capacity. The grounds were crisscrossed with infrastructure – temporary bleachers, a small village of shipping container workspaces for the army of wax technicians who prepare the skis for the course, and more than a kilometer of two-by-four fences adorned with sponsor banners along the course.

When it was time for Thursday's women's individual sprint 7.5K to begin, a local choir sang the national anthem to open the event.

The closest post-Olympics Soldier Hollow had come to hosting an international event of this caliber was the cross-country junior world championships in 2017 but that was a significantly smaller undertaking, with fewer competitors and less requirements for infrastructure.

The Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation has been trying to make international competition at Soldier Hollow more frequent since it took over the venue in May 2016.

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"For us, it's important on many levels," said Colin Hilton, CEO of the UOLF. "(We want to) showcase to the international biathlon world that we are serious about hosting a high a level of events as possible … and also to reinvest in our technical officials and volunteers in order to have a level of knowledge that you only get by doing events over and over again."

He said both were important if the venue was to host a second Olympics as Salt Lake City positions itself as a potential repeat host. The United States Olympic Committee recently selected the region as its bid for the 2030 Winter Games.

Building the culture of the biathlon and other winter sports in the U.S. is another goal for the UOLF, and it was part of the reason the organization worked with local schools to bring in some 500 students to watch the events on Thursday and Friday.

"It's a great field trip for the kids to come out, and who knows, we might inspire a few kids to try out these sports," he said. "That's quite a bit of what our organization is about is opening peoples' eyes to try some new things that are right in our back yard here. … Whether it's schools or the general public, we are that something unique and different that really creates an identity for our state and our regions that are hosting these events."

But the UOLF has a lot of work to do if it wants the Americans to celebrate biathlon as enthusiastically as European fans do.

Susan Dunklee, a Vermont native who has raced for the U.S. at the World Cup level since 2011, explained what it's like to compete in countries where the sport is an athletic staple after placing 45th in Thursday's race.

"If you were to turn on ESPN, say, during primetime in the US, and you were to see biathlon two times a week, that's what we're dealing with in Europe," she said. "They have about five or six million people in Germany alone tuning in to watch World Cup races. On site at the stadium, we will often have 20,000 people on the stands; 10,000 spectators on the trails."

She said when a popular athlete comes in to shoot, the crowd watches with bated breath to see if each shot hits its mark or misses.

"20,000 people all in sync, cheering and groaning; it's just electrifying," she said.

Soldier Hollow's attendance likely didn't come close to rivaling those numbers, but Dunklee and her teammate Clare Egan, who herself took 21st on Thursday, said they were happy with the turnout.

"I wasn't sure what sort of crowds we would have," she said. "I was a little worried about that, but I'm pleasantly surprised."

The venue had brought in food trucks, constructed a stage for a collection of bands, and featured a petting zoo, a mechanical bull and an axe-throwing station as well.

"This is actually just a really fun, American environment," Egan said. "It's very different from the European beer garden crowd, and it's positive. I love it, it's been great."

Fun and games aside, Dunklee said if the U.S. is to embrace biathlon like the sport has been elsewhere, Soldier Hollow will have a big role to play.

"This is one of the best venues we have in the country," she said.

It has both the infrastructure for elite competitions, and it's easily accessed from a large population center, as opposed to other major U.S. biathlon venues.

"To me, it's really important we keep this venue in good shape," she said. "This is the future of biathlon in the U.S. One of the centers."

Remaining World Cup biathlon schedule

Soldier Hollow, Midway

Saturday, Feb. 16:

Gates open at 9 a.m.

Women’s pursuit race starts at 10:05 a.m.

Men’s pursuit race starts at 2:05 p.m.

Sunday, Feb. 17:

Gates open at 9 a.m.

Single mixed relay starts at 10:10 a.m.

Mixed relay starts at 2:05 p.m.

For more information go to biathlonworldcuputah.com