Published February 13, 2010
VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — The Nordic combined and biathlon are afterthoughts in the U.S. — if they're thought of at all — but that could change this year.
A day after Hannah Kearney became the first U.S. gold medalist at the Vancouver Games when she won the women's moguls, Todd Lodwick and Tim Burke will try to win golds of their own in more traditional Olympic sports — Lodwick in the Nordic combined and Burke in biathlon.
NBC will broadcast some of each Sunday, so viewers should have a chance to check out a group of Americans making headway in two events often dominated by Europe.
"We are not just medal hopefuls," Lodwick said. "We are medal contenders."
The U.S. has never won a medal in biathlon or Nordic combined, but the Americans are making serious progress. Lodwick and Billy Demong combined for three titles in Nordic combined at last year's world championships, and Burke has been near the top of the World Cup standings in biathlon.
If any of those three win gold, it will be quite a contrast to Kearney's victory. Unlike moguls skiing — a relatively recent addition to the Olympics — the biathlon and Nordic combined have been part of the program for decades.
The first men's biathlon event this year is the 10-kilometer sprint Sunday, and that will also be the first competition at the Vancouver Games for Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway. He's won nine medals in his career, including five golds. Only three Winter Olympians have more medals, and countryman Bjorn Daehlie, a cross-country skier, holds the record of 12.
Bjoerndalen's event includes cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship. Biathletes have to ski as fast as they can, then calm down and shoot at a target. For every missed target, a biathlete must ski a penalty loop.
Bjoerndalen won a gold medal in 1998 and four more in 2002. He didn't win any events at the Turin Games in 2006, but don't assume he's in decline. At last year's world championships, he won three individual titles and anchored Norway's winning relay team.
Burke finished 37th in the 10km at the 2006 Games, but he was ninth at the world championship in 2008 and 11th last year.
"It's important for us to have good athletes from more and more nations," Bjoerndalen said. "Hopefully we can have more races in the U.S. in the future. If we want to make the sport more interesting in the U.S., it is absolutely necessary to have guys like Tim Burke and other good athletes."
In addition to Burke, Jay Hakkinen could end up on the podium for the Americans in biathlon.
Demong and Lodwick will make their bids in the Nordic combined, which couples cross-country skiing and ski jumping. Judges use the ski jump results to award the first starting position in the cross-country race, and the rest of the athletes are given staggered start times. The first athlete across the finish line takes the gold.
Competitors will jump on the normal hill Sunday, then race 10 kilometers.
Lodwick was the world champion in that format last year, and Demong finished third. Teammate Johnny Spillane was 16th, and he's at these Olympics, too.
"From 15 years until now, we've gotten better and better," said Spillane, a world champion in 2003 in a different Nordic combined event. "Now I feel like we've become one of the stronger teams."
NBC had planned to feature skier Lindsey Vonn in prime time Sunday, but the American standout is in limbo along with every other Alpine skier. Saturday's men's downhill was pushed back to Monday morning because of warm, wet weather that's turned the slopes to mush. Sunday's women's super-combined met a similar fate.
NBC will make do with other events Sunday, such as the pairs figure skating short program in prime time. Earlier in the day, the network will show the biathlon and Nordic combined at Whistler — an opportunity for some of the lesser-known U.S. athletes to enjoy the spotlight.
"It's kind of special when we sit down for a team meeting after we finished third, fourth and fifth, and we ask, 'What went wrong?'" Demong said. "There are goals now and we do believe them."