Biathlon, war go together; Iraq has loosened ties
By Barry Newman, The Wall Street Journal | February 13, 2006
CESANA SAN SICARIO, Italy -- Biathlon is a war game. Soldiers who ski fast and shoot straight have historically made up its personnel. But at these Olympics, the military is nearly missing from the team sent here by the world's mightiest military competitor.
Tracy and Lanny Barnes, 23-year-old twins, are shooting and skiing for America in the Italian Alps. They trained on a new trail in Fort Kent, Maine, built by a nonprofit rural-development project, the Maine Winter Sports Center. Though they were "approached several times," they say, the twins didn't follow the tracks of past U.S. biathletes to the National Guard's sports outfit, based near the Army Mountain Warfare School in the Green Mountains of Vermont.
"Our mom strongly opposed us joining for fear they would send us to war," the twins write in a jointly signed email. Another mother, Gretchen Kamilewicz, knows the feeling. "I'm not a lover of the military," she says. "When Ben told me he was joining, I felt sick."
Her son, Ben Kamilewicz, skied cross-country for Williams College and taught high school until the National Guard recruited him onto its biathlon team. That was early in 2001. For four years, he trained full-time, learning to cross-country ski his heart out, pause to let his heartbeat drop, and then fire a rifle at a target. In 2004, he raced for the U.S. at the World Cup in Alberta. He had hopes of making the Olympic team.
But his unit was called up last summer, and now, at 29, he is spending his days on Humvee patrol in Ramadi, Iraq.
"My experience in the sport of biathlon," he writes in an email from Ramadi, "has been filled with many wonderful adventures that have led me to many exciting places, and at the end of my journey, by some twist of fate, to the wretched war zone of Iraq."
"This wasn't in the cards," says his father, Dexter Kamilewicz, a real-estate man in Maine. "Ben had a passion for the sport. He wanted to compete. Now his focus is on surviving. That takes as much effort and concentration as it does to be a world-class athlete."
Lawton Redman, who was on the 2002 Olympic biathlon team, also is in Iraq. Dan Westover, a 1998 Olympian, is in Afghanistan. Many guardsmen go willingly. Curtis Schreiner's biathlon career ended when the three-time Olympian was called up in 2002. Mr. Schreiner, 38, returned to his New York home in September from his last post, in downtown Tikrit. "I enjoy being in the military," he says. Yet of the 10 biathletes on the U.S. team in Turin, only Spc. Jeremy Teela is still in the Army. The rest trained as civilians.
"There's no hiding the fact that the war has made high-school and college skiers reluctant to join the guard," says Master Sgt. Art Stegan, who has worked in its biathlon program for 35 years. When they do, says Douglas Ide, a spokesman for the Army Community and Family Support Center, "they're soldiers first."
In biathlon, the military-athletic complex is breaking down, not only in the U.S. -- whose biathletes have never won a medal at the Olympics -- but also in Norway, the sport's superpower. For both countries, in different ways, the reason is a victory of butter over guns.
When a "military patrol race" was introduced to the Olympics in 1924, it was all about guns, an extension of Scandinavian winter warfare. Only active-duty soldiers could participate. The patrol race was scratched from the 1948 Olympics for just that reason: In the aftermath of World War II, it was too militaristic.
The race returned to the Olympics in 1960, renamed biathlon, and the U.S. Army fielded a squad. During the Vietnam War, draftees who could ski spoiled for assignment to the Army mountain division in Alaska; in Vietnam, skiers weren't in high demand. When the draft ended, the Army transferred biathlon to the National Guard.
Somebody had to pay for the eight years of training it takes to turn skiers into mature marksmen. For the sake of morale building and public relations, the guard took on the job. In effect, it has since bankrolled a corps of full-time biathletes. The Army activates the best of them into its World Class Athletes Program.
More than 30 countries send biathletes to the Olympics; no other discipline attracts more entries. Most teams still are comprised almost entirely of active-duty soldiers. The British, much occupied in Iraq, have sent only two biathletes to Turin. With no war worries, the French have sent five soldiers and five frontier guards. Germany has a similar mix.
"There's no question of fighting in foreign countries," says the German team's spokesman, Stefan Schwarzbach. "The Germans are in a far better position than the Americans."
As the war on terror was getting hot, however, biathletes in America were presented with a peaceable alternative. The Maine Winter Sports Center, established in 2000 with a $20 million grant from Maine's Libra Foundation, has set up cross-country trails at 62 schools, provided skis for 6,000 students and built two of the world's best biathlon courses, in the towns of Fort Kent and Presque Isle.
The objective was a revival of Maine's skiing traditions, but "we knew competitive fires would be fueled," says the center's head, Andy Shepard, a former L.L. Bean Inc. executive. "We're producing more biathlete potential than anyplace else in the country." And top biathletes from all over, drawn by free coaching and subsidized living, are avoiding the National Guard to train in Maine.
"The guard provides more funding," Mr. Shepard says. "But with that support comes other expectations."
Mr. Shepard hopes that one day biathletes will win their full financial freedom. The Biathlon Association took a step toward that this year by signing a sponsorship deal with TD Banknorth Inc. in Portland, Maine. The National Guard has no plans at this stage for a biathlon pullout. The Norwegian team's retreat from the military, however, is well under way.
Thanks to an overhaul of its rules, biathlon lately has made the big leagues in Europe. Skiers who used to disappear into the woods to fire their weapons now converge on the firing line all at once. Front-runners drop to the rear if their shots miss. It plays beautifully on television, in super-slow-motion, drawing Continental audiences of 20 million.
At Salt Lake City in 2002, Norway swept the races while a third of its four million people watched. Sponsorships Americans can only dream of came pouring in. This season, they are valued at $2.5 million.
But Norwegian companies, like American ones, aren't allowed to sponsor soldiers. So the Norwegian army (which, as of Feb. 1, withdrew its small force from Iraq) has also withdrawn from Olympic biathlon. Not one member of Norway's team, including its star, Ole Einar Bjorndalen, is in the army now.
All together now:
"It's all Bush's fault!"
These folks are officially worse than the "I just joined so they would pay for college folks."
I guess they never thought that the military training that they had to attend in their FOUR YEARS OF TRAINING may have been for some reason?
NBC is not broadcasting the Biathlon events
The only stations that I found in my area were:
And they're all taking place around 12PM-1300 GMT+6 (Torino time).
I am taping the women's events
If I had the opportunity, I'd gladly volunteer and train for the US team if they ever needed a few extra bodies for the 2010 winter olympics. I'd also gladly and prefer to train in the military facilities.
No, but they are broadcasting curling, albeit at 3 AM.
I have to agree, they're in the Army, you might have to expect to be called to serve.
I think i have to agree with smiling bandit,
From my personal experience in the guard they never showed up for training, they just held slots in a unit and played their games/athletic training. Not much good to the unit then. Well at least they had the opportunity to serve when it really mattered. As long as they go, I'm good with that. God speed (and quit your blat assin as the case may be)
Sorry, but these assholes piss me off.
Saw the same shit in ROTC during Desert Storm/Shield...bunch of dipshits saying "gee, I only joined to get my schooling, I don't want to fight!" My Guard unit was better, but we still had whiners....