Norway is one of the dominant biathlon nations. The sport was invented in Scandinavia (possibly even Norway) with the skiing soldiers and has deep roots amongst the Norwegian people. Since the founding of the IBU Norway has 14 overall men’s titles to go with 8 women’s titles ranking 1 and 2 for most titles respectively. This success has not surprisingly carried over to the Olympic level as well. Biathlon was competed as “military patrol” in the early Winter Olympic games, but it first appeared in the Olympic program as we would recognize it in 1960. Since then Norway has won a total of 41 medals including 16 gold ranking behind only Germany in both categories.
This isn’t only history though. Over just the last 20 years Norway has won 10 men’s overall titles as well as 9 second place finishes. On the women’s side, while there hasn’t quite been as much recent success, Tora Berger and Tiril Eckhoff have won 3 titles in the last 10 seasons. This all amounts to a history of success and high expectations.
Just last season the Norwegian squad had a phenomenal season for both the men and women. Let’s start with the women… Tiril Eckhoff won the crystal globe following an historic season. She won 13 times including the last 7 sprint races in a row. Marte Olsbu Røeiseland finished 2nd overall and actually held the yellow bib through week 7. She had 3 wins and 4 other podiums. In total, Norwegian women climbed to the top step of the podium 17 times in 26 races including winning each of the last 7 races of the season.
For the Norwegian men Johannes Thingnes Bø won his third career overall crystal globe but it wasn’t easy. He was pushed all season long by Norwegian newcomer Sturla Holm Lægreid who ended up in second place by just 13 points. The men actually won every single discipline crystal globe there was to win! Not surprisingly like the Norwegian women they dominated the circuit winning 15 of 26 races.
It wasn’t just the wins and the crystal globes that contributed to a sense of Norwegian dominance. This is entirely subjective but it felt like the entire narrative of the season was Norwegians. On the women’s World Cup race it really was about the wins as Eckhoff piled up win after win. Røeiseland finishing second was almost an afterthought. Meanwhile Norge men finished 1 (JT Bø), 2 (Lægreid), 4 (Tarje Bø), and 5 (Johannes Dale) in the overall standings and were it not for a late surge from QFM they would have swept the top 4 overall spots. For a sense of how rare this is, the last time a single nation swept just the top 3 spots in the men’s overall standings was East Germany in the 1979-1980 season. (You could make an argument that Germany did it in ’85-’86 but that was pre unification so I left it out). Regardless, on both sides, the questions were primarily about how dominant the Norwegians would be rather than one of who might win.
This season has a distinctly different feel. The general conversation about the Norwegian squad this season is more about struggles and a failure to live up to expectations. A sense of waiting for a breakout from one of the dominant biathletes.
To be quite clear Norway is not having a bad season. In fact while it feels like a “step back” for Norway nearly every other nation would be thrilled to be having their season. So what is the true picture of this season for Norway? And what is going on with the top Norwegian biathletes from last season?
An Overall Look at 2021-2022
So how does this season really break down for the Norwegians? Well here’s a look at the current top 15 in the world on each side:
|Men’s Overall||Women’s Overall|
|1. Emilien Jacquelin||1. Marte Olsbu Røeiseland|
|2. Quinton Fillon Maillet||2. Elvira Oeberg|
|3. Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen||3. Dzinara Alimikava|
|4. Sebastian Samuelsson||4. Lisa Theresa Hauser|
|5. Eduard Latypov||5. Hanna Sola|
|6. Tarjei Bø||6. Hanna Oeberg|
|7. Johannes Thingnes Bø||7. Anais Bescond|
|8. Anton Smolski||8. Justine Braisaz-Bouchet|
|9. Sturla Holm Lægreid||9. Kristina Reztsova|
|10. Simon Desthieux||10. Anais Chevalier-Bouchet|
|11. Johannes Kuehn||11. Marketa Davidova|
|12. Alexander Loginov||12. Denise Hermann|
|13. Fabien Claude||13. Uliana Nigmatullina|
|14. Benjamin Weger||14. Dorothea Wierer|
|15. Sivert Bakken||15. Mona Brorsson|
Røeiseland is leading the women’s overall for goodness sakes. If it weren’t for her planned weekend off (as all of the Norwegians are doing at some point to prep for the Olympics) she might be the favorite to win the crystal globe this season! But she’s all alone in the top 15 of the overall standings. Just last year there were 3 Norwegian women in the top 8. The men have Tarjei Bø sitting in 6th which is just about exactly where he’s been the last 5-6 seasons. Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen is having his best season ever and even wore the yellow jersey for a few days. And you still have 4 men in the top 9 and 5 in the top 15 (a very solid 1/3 of the list). However its clearly off from last season’s complete domination.
I think you could say this season is a bit of a mixed bag. Some very good results, some athletes definitely competing at their expected level or even higher than you might expect like Christiansen. Also some good young talent in Bakken starting to rise. But you also have some very big holes namely: the significant falls of Eckhoff, JT Bø, and Lægreid. It’s not like they fell 3-4 spots. They all took fairly dramatic tumbles.
Before we dig into those three in particular I want to point this out: every single Norwegian (besides Christiansen and Lien) is skiing slower than they did a year ago. I am leaving Bakken out of this because he only raced twice last season which isn’t a fair comparison. If we want to try to identify what’s “gone wrong” for the Norwegians this season vs. last this is a very good place to start. It’s actually impressive. It’s so uniform and strange for a nation with such a strong history and recent performances to have such results. It’s so uniform that it might not be a coincidence…?
So what could be happening that would affect the entire team? Is it a singular focus on building toward Beijing? Well I looked back just at average ski rank for Norwegian biathletes in the 2016-2017 and the 2017-2018 season and there was not this same uniform slow down. Most were right at their career averages. So is this a new strategy specifically for this Olympic cycle? It would be a fair decision to make as Pyeongchang wasn’t an unqualified success for Norwegian biathletes.
I know that the focus on the Olympics plays a unquantifiable role in the Norwegian relative struggles this season. Several athletes including Lægreid and Eckhoff have directly indicated their primary focus this season is on the Olympics. And that makes sense to a degree. Like I mentioned earlier Norway is one of the premier biathlon nations, and with their history and tradition one way to build your reputation and add your name to the pantheon of great biathletes is through Olympic glory. For both JT Bø and Tiril Eckhoff at their ages there aren’t a lot of chances left to perform on the Olympic stage. Lægreid is still quite young but might be feeling pressure to “strike while the iron is hot” so to speak. Entering the season those three were the top contenders for Olympic medals not just for Norway but for all athletes and they are the ones having the most pronounced steps backward. Is that a coincidence? Like I said it’s just not something that can be measured. Okay now looks look into those three in particular in more quantifiable ways…
1.Tiril Eckhoff –
We covered it above but last season Tiril Eckhoff was absolutely on fire. Every race depended on “Will Eckhoff miss enough times to let anybody else have a chance” because nobody was touching her when she shot remotely well. This season though Eckhoff has hardly been a factor. Three big questions present themselves: What made last season so good for Eckhoff? Was it a blip? Can she recover?
Prior to the COVID shortened 2019-2020 season, when she ended up 2nd just behind Wierer, Eckhoff was a good but not great biathlete. Her best overall finish prior to that point was 7th in 2013-2014. For her entire career Eckhoff has always been an excellent skier. Since that 2013-2014 season she has ranked no lower than 8th in ski performance peaking last season at #1. What sparked her rise to the top of the overall standings though was a modest improvement in shooting.
What I find most dramatic about this graph is how starkly it shows her relatively poor shooting. It is so much further down that it sort of throws off the scale of the entire graph. It’s hard to really see the improvement in her overall rank because it looks tiny compared to the change in her shooting. Regardless what we’re seeing here is that Tiril Eckhoff’s skiing is so good that even a moderate improvement to just 38th and 39th in total hit rank was enough to propel her to the top of the overall standings. So what changed this season?
Well…that goes the wrong direction in a hurry. Even with the warped scale you can see that everything except for shooting speed is going in the wrong direction. Clearly the most pronounced drop is in total hit rank but even average ski rank is now at its lowest point since her first full season on the World Cup. To be fair average rank is not a perfect measure. It can easily be thrown off by 1-2 large aberrations (especially with Eckhoff racing only 7 times this season). If you look at her ski average to median you can see a little dip there too though. Eckhoff herself even mentioned her inability to “perform optimally” for her reason for withdrawal from Annecy following the sprint.
As mentioned above it is clear that the shooting is what has taken the greatest hit. At this point she’s back to about her career average with shooting. So you could actually make a fairly good argument that the last two seasons were the “blip” and that this is more a regression to her normal. You would likely expect her ski form to improve a touch. There has been some indication that she feels she overtrained in anticipation of the season and the Olympics. However, she needs her shooting to get back to something resembling the last 2 seasons to have any chance at recovering this season. Right now though she’s just putting herself in too deep of a hole with the misses and the penalty loops are taking extra juice out of her legs that already aren’t up to their normal stellar level. I would imagine that her confidence is a bit shaky at the moment too but she is skiing well enough that if she could just have 2-3 races in a row where she shoots well she can still be competitive.
2. Johannes Thingnes Bø –
JT Bø has been at the absolute top of biathlon for the last 5 seasons. At his best he can be one of the best to ever do it. This year though he’s having his worst start to a season in quite some time. This is all relative mind you. He’s still 7th in the overall standings and won the sprint race in Annecy which for most anybody is a very good season. But that’s not necessarily the case when you are trying to make your mark with the all time greats of the sport.
Let’s just compare this season to his performance from last season. Remember that last season the conversation around Bø was that he had taken a step back because with the loss of Fourcade he had nobody to push against. By the holiday break last year Bø had one win just like this season but je also had 7 other top 5 performances and his worst finish was 7th. This year he has just 4 top 5 finishes and he’s finished as low as 18, 20, and 29th. His last finishes worse than 20th were at the 2018 Winter Olympics (which leads to an entirely different conversation than the one I want to have today).
If you look closely at the graph above you’ll see Bø is currently skiing worse relative to the field than he has at any point since 2016-2017. (Really that means he isn’t #1 anymore…but that’s a huge aspect to his dominance!). You also see that his average ski rank is down quite a bit which makes since considering his speed dip. His shooting, which had a dramatic regression last season has also slipped yet again as well. Below you can see his ranks skiing and hit rate per race this season.
The take away here is that besides one really really bad shooting day he hasn’t had any truly miserable days on the range. In fact if you took away Hochfilzen Sprint race his average hit rate ranking is actually better than last season. While not up to his career best it would still be better. His skiing has consistently been in the top 10 but he isn’t dominant like he formerly was. That’s been just enough to knock Bø down from what was a very narrow overall win last season to middle of the top 10.
Now do I think this dip is permanent? I don’t know. Last season plus this season does seem to indicate that he is mortal if not on the backside of his career. He is only 28 now so he should have several more years but maybe just not at the same absolute skiing apex that he had previously. Unlike Eckhoff though, this is a case where if his skiing does return to the top form he’s had the last 5-6 years I could absolutely see him going on a run of high finishes. It’s hard to predict how the World Cup overall race will shake out with different athletes/teams taking time away for altitude training camps but he’s absolutely not out of the running in a very tightly bunched men’s race. This could very well be a situation where JT Bø plays his cards exactly right, has a high peak around mid February which carries through the end of the season and he ends up with 1-2 gold medals and another crystal globe. Long story short: the shooting is actually there, just waiting for the skiing form we know he has to come around.
3. Sturla Holm Lægreid –
Lægreid came blazing into our lives last season racing immediately to the top of the standings. He pushed the aforementioned great JT Bø all the way to the very last race of the season in the race for the crystal globe. He came within 1 trip to the range of winning the whole thing. This season has been much more up and down though. So what made last season so great? And what has changed this year?
Lægreid simply has less time on the World Cup circuit and less data in total so its more difficulty to figure out who he *really* is. Was last season a once in a life time aberration or is this season just “sophomore slump.” So let’s look at what we’ve got.
Well like I said its difficult to get much from just 2 data points. Clearly his ski speed is well off the mark from last season. Remarkably though his shooting is actually better. So in an effort to gain a little bit more perspective let’s look at just this season.
So first of all what happened during the sprint in Hochfilzen where neither Bø nor Lægreid could shoot worth a lick. Seriously though it’s pretty clear looking above that Lægreid doesn’t have to ski as well as Bø to compete. However in order to compete for wins he does need to shoot almost better than anybody else on the course. And as his ski performance continues to slip he is running dangerously close to reaching a point where no matter how well he shoots he can’t make up for it.
We do know that Lægreid is nearly entirely focused on the Olympics. He said as much earlier in the season. I believe it is fair to infer that he’s aiming for a peak in February and doesn’t care as much about the early weeks of the season except to continue to train. So as we look ahead for his prospects for the rest of the season and the Olympics I’m bullish on Lægreid. He’s actually shooting ever so slightly more accurately than last year and if he can get his skiing back a little further towards the front of the pack he’ll be right there.
As we mentioned way way waaaaay back at the top much of the Norwegian squad is actually performing at or a little better than we might expect including Christiansen, Tarjei Bø, Bakken, Røeiseland , and even Lien. Tandrevold is also having a down year and we didn’t cover her at all but honestly her story is fairly close to Eckhoff’s So what about the big three I mentioned earlier?
For Eckhoff I am actually a little nervous about her ability to get back to her performance of the last two seasons. She’s down across the board and her shooting is back to about her career average. Her skiing rank is definitely down but she’s not *that* much slower than the top of the pack. I will leave one caveat: that she came into the season completely focused on the Olympics and was either aiming for February peak or over trained in the preseason. Either way she wasn’t able to perform the way she wanted to and expects to. Over time that can wear at a competitors confidence which can hurt all aspects of performance. If she an find her speed (and confidence) on the skis she might be able to find it on the range too. If that’s the case she could be the same woman who won all of those medals in Polkjuka. Total speculation but I like to be optimistic.
As for Bø and Lægreid I’m actually very optimistic. Both are shooting better than last season (Bø only if you remove his one terrible shooting). I absolutely believe both are fully concentrating on a peak for Beijing and don’t care as much about November/December. Unlike Sweden who aimed for a double peak they are aiming for one really big peak. Regardless Bø and Lægreid have now had two additional weeks of training, and they have the upcoming high altitude training in Italy in January. I am quite optimistic that we haven’t seen near the best from these two that we will see later this season.
So what’s my point? Norway is Norway. The expectations are only higher than ever. And I think that this team can absolutely achieve those expectations.