We’re one step into this mega Olympic preview so you should know the general outline by now. We’ll look at each discipline, break down the favorites, the next tier, and then the under the radar selections. For this bunch I’m going to try to only focus on 3-4 per discipline and not discuss the same athlete twice. This should tighten things up a bit. You’ll notice a lot of names showing up again and again. Well that’s the truth isn’t it? It would be completely disingenuous to try to pretend that Røiseland is not going to be in contention for every single medal.
These athletes are also ordered in a very rough outline. Please don’t take these as my “predictions” as those will come the day of the race! (If these end up being more accurate than my day of predictions please feel free to use these as my predictions!). Really what I’m trying to do here is identify the top 2 tiers of contenders for each race and then look at somebody maybe a bit off the map. The off the radar is just that. They aren’t my true #11 but somebody that isn’t being discussed much at all. Also we’re going through in order of the events as they will be competed throughout the games. Okay let’s dive in!
Individual: The Games are starting off with the most brutal test in biathlon. How cruel is this? The venue is at over 1600 meters, the temperature there as I’m writing this is -29, and there are predicted to be strong winds. The snow is manmade and cold so likely to be slow. Talk about draining the legs from day one. Some athletes are going to come into the Olympics in great form and some are not. Those who aren’t are going to be hurting right away. We’ll see the strong women separate from the pack here and those who didn’t have good prep could be on the back foot for the next 2 weeks.
1.Julia Simon – The Individual is a race where the strong survive and nobody defines strong like Julia Simon. This is a bit of a boom or bust pick but all recent signs are pointing towards a boom. Since the start of racing in Annecy, a stretch that includes 9 races, she has 4 2nd place finishes, 5 top 5’s, and 7 top 10’s. Over that period she is the #3 overall woman behind only Røiseland, Elvira Öberg, and just ahead of Dzinara Alimbekava.
That also includes a 2nd place finish in the Individual in Antholz. This, to me, is the most important factor because Antholz is the closest thing to the Zhangjiakou in terms of altitude. Simon has shown good ski form in the past, and she continues to do so this season as she currently ranks 12th overall in ski speed. She also clearly has the ski form to power through a 15km race at altitude.
The biggest issue Simon has faced in her career has been her shooting. Here is her shooting over that stretch I referenced above: 80, 95, 90, 90, 85, 70, 95, 90, and 85%. That’s not top of the World Cup level by any means but it is good enough to get the job done. She could start the Olympics off in a big way!
2. Marte Olsbu Røiseland
3. Hanna Öberg
4. Dorothea Wierer
5. Markéta Davidová – I will be honest, I don’t know what to make of Davidová. Every time I think she’s about to have a break out performance she falls just a little bit short of my hopes. But then when I’m expecting nothing she rises up. That’s a bit of what we’ve seen this season. She started out the season in a major way by winning the opening Individual race in Östersund. She’s since had 4 more top 10’s. Otherwise she’s been fairly consistently finishing in the 10-25 range which is good, but not quite the maximum of her potential
It does appear that for whatever reason the Individual race brings the best out of her. She has 2 of her 3 career wins in the Individual including her last two victories on the World Cup. Further she has top 10’s in 50% of the Individual races that she’s competed in which is by far her highest top 10 percentage. Of her 12 career podiums, 4 are in Individual even though Individuals are just 12 of her 94 career solo races. Most importantly of all, she won the Individual in the last World Championships showing the ability to compete on the biggest stages.
Having Davidová in the top 5 over any of the other women felt wrong. However I had to have her in the group of favorites. It’s not like this is only historical success in the Individual, she has a win and a 6th place just this season! I can’t ignore that so yes, she belongs in this group.
Need Some Help
6. Elvira Öberg
7. Lisa Hauser – Hauser is coming into these Olympic Games without having shown her best this year. The 2nd half of last season was a definitely leap forward for her bringing Hauser her first career wins and several additional podiums. Always a terrific shooter, one of the best on the World Cup, but last season she added a new level of speed that she had never shown before. She ended the season on the edge of the top 10 overall in skiing.
This season she started off slower but still managed to win a Sprint race in Östersund. She said after the race that she was intending to build slowly through the season and aim to peak her form again in time for the Beijing Olympics. While at times she has started to show improved speed she’s never quite found the form she had at her peak last season. In spite of that she remains just on the edge of podium finishes by continuing to rely on her shooting. She did have a strange 65% shooting in the last Mass Start in Antholz but I’m inclined to dismiss that as an outlier.
If Lisa Hauser is going to have a peak performance this year, we’re all ready to see it now. The Individual should play to her strengths and it was in fact the discipline in which she achieved her first solo win. If she can shoot as she always has, and if she is able to successfully find the speed she was able to find last season, this will be the first time we see it. She also could win her first Olympic medal.
8. Dzinara Alimbekava
9. Justine Braisaz-Bouchet
10. Vanessa Voigt
Off the Radar:
11. Alina Stremous – Stremous has had quite the rise over the last few weeks. I will be honest prior to this season I would not have been able to identify Alina Stremous’ name as a biathlete. She’s changed that in a hurry though. The Moldovan had a total of eight World Cup starts before this season. She started off the year about how you would expect, finishing routinely in the 40’s and 50’s. She achieed her first top 30 in the Annecy le Grand Bornand Pursuit race, her first top 20 in the Oberhoff pursuit race, and her first top 10 in the Antholz Mass Start.
For these purposes the most important race in that stretch was finishing 14th in the Individual in Antholz. This proved she had the chops to compete in the grueling Individual race discipline and at altitude. Just this past weekend she got he first podium finish at any level by getting 2nd in the Individual in the European Championships. She followed that up with 4th in the Sprint and 1st in the Pursuit races in those championships. Yes it is weaker competition but those are the types of finishes you would expect her to have if she belongs in this conversation.
Speaking of peaking you can see it happening with her ski rankings over the last weeks. For the first several weeks of the season she was finishing about 30-40th in ski speed. In Antholz she was 14th fastest in the Individual and 4th fastest in the Mass Start. Shooting wise she has shot less than 85% just one time since Hochfilzen, 8 times in 9 races. Is she a likely top 5 candidate? No, but she’s the perfect choice for an under the radar choice.
Sprint: The Sprint race will take place 4 days after the Individual race. This is such an unusual pattern for biathletes. Yes they the World Championships every year are spaced out but never this far. It will require the appropriate balance of rest/recovery as well as training to stay in top form. Then you jump right back in with the Sprint race. This is hard and fast. I’ve heard it described as running up several flights of stairs and then trying to thread a needle. While many of the same athletes are going to be competitive in the Individual and the Sprint the Sprint will favor those athletes with powerful burst.
1.Elvira Öberg – Elvira Öberg has been one of the stories of the 2021-2022 World Cup season thus far. She’s taken the leap from good to great and done it an extraordinary way. When Elvia Öberg steps to the starting line there are now the only 2 women who can hope to keep contact with her on the skis are Justine Braisaz-Bouchet and Hanna Öberg. She’s starts with a gigantic advantage over nearly every other woman in each race. And that incudes a significant advantage over her primary competition Marte Røiseland.
It is noteworthy that three of her four slowest races relative to the field were in her last four races before Beijing. However she was open about the hard training she did over the winter holiday break. She anticipated a small step backward and that’s what we saw. Her slowest race of the season was easily the last Pursuit race that she was involved in. That came right after a particularly hard training day. That’s a long way of saying that while she appeared to lose some speed since the start of 2022, I believe it is actually going according to her training plan to peak again for Beijing.
Actually the most important thing that happened in 2022 was Elvira showing continued and improving confidence with her rifle. She had her first 100% shooting of the season in the Ruhpolding Sprint win and followed that up with a 90% in the 2nd place Pursuit. That made five of eight races shooting 90% or better.
Elvira Öberg has strength on the snow that is nearly unmatched. This is going to be an even greater strength in the thin air and slower snow of these Olympic Games. If she can shoot 90% or better then she’s going to win several medals and some of them may be gold.
2. Marte Olsbu Røiseland
3. Dzinara Alimbekava
4. Hanna Öberg
5. Justine Braisaz-Bouchet
6. Dorothea Wierer
7. Hanna Sola – Sola is a bit of an interesting athlete at this junction. If the Olympics has been in December she would have been one of the favorites to medal. As it is now she still has a better shot than most but it’s hard to call her a “favorite.” She started off the season on fire, showing of a new level of ski speed than we had ever seen from her before. She took that, combined it with some mildly improved shooting, and turned it into 6 top 10’s including her first career win in the Hochfilzen Sprint.
Most of that success though, came before Christmas with just 1 top 10 since. It was a 2nd place finish but it was still in the Oberhoff Sprint which was a month ago now. Since then her form has been on downward trajectory with just 1 top 15 finish the last 2 weekends. Her ski form has remained decent as she had the 6th best course time in the Antholz Individual. Her shooting though has really taken a plunge with just 1 race with above 80% accuracy since the break.
If Sola can get things straightened out on the range she’ll be able to compete. She’s had most of her success in Sprint races including her only win and it limits her exposure on the range so I believe this will be her best chance at an individual medal. Hopefully she can bring her best stuff and give it a chance because the athlete we saw the first month of the season was one of the best in the world and was very fun to watch.
8. Denise Herrmann
9. Anais Bescond
10. Tiril Eckhoff – Tiril Eckhoff, like Elvira Öberg, has also been one of the big stories of the season. But for all of the wrong reasons. One year after dominating the women’s World Cup season she’s gone the opposite direction and had a bit of a season to forget. She started off the season struggling with accuracy on the range and then compounded that by losing her form. This culminated in leaving the races at Annecy le Grand Bornand early to start her break and find her form. Unfortunately she was dealt another setback when she got sick over the break.
She’s raced just three times since, once in Ruhpolding, followed by an altitude training camp, and then twice in Antholz. In those three races her ski ranks were 12, 2, and 10. She also shot 80, 80, and 90%. Is that the stuff of champions? Not quite. But you have to take the bigger picture with Eckhoff. It’s just three races but it is a modestly upward trajectory from where she was in December. I am believing that there was an overall plan set in motion during that winter break was a peak for the Olympics and not January. Those races were just data points on the way to a new level. If she’s successful then I’ve severely underrated her. (And if I’m being honest I would have like to have ranked her in a few more of these disciplines). Hopefully we see the best of Tiril Eckhoff in the coming days.
Off the Radar:
11. Ida Lien – If you’re looking at potential medalists from Norway Ida Lien is maybe the 4th name on your list. The 24 year old is a clearly talented though and there is a history of young talents making a big impression at the Olympics. Maybe it’s that they are too young to be nervous like their older counter parts. Or maybe there is something about the Olympics focusing their talent into a more pure form. Either way, we’ve seen time and again where young biathletes are able to grab a medal at the Olympics before it seems like they are “ready.” Just look at 2018 where Hanna Öberg won gold in Individual and Samuelsson won silver in Pursuit!
So why Ida Lien in the Sprint? Well if she’s going to find a way to the top it is likely going to be in the Sprint category. All of her career top 10’s are in Sprints, including 4th in Hochfilzen, so that’s a pretty good hint. But if you look at her attributes she is developing the speed before she’s developing shooting accuracy (following the Tiril Eckhoff path?) Also as I said before she doesn’t quite have control of her shooting yet so the Sprint limits her chances to hurt herself.
There are also some trendlines that seem to point in a positive direction. In the Oberhoff races her ski ranks were 13th and 6th. She missed Ruhpolding. In Antholz her ski ranks fell back to 18th and 20th. That’s not terribly surprising coming of a hard training camp. Young legs with potential like hers may be able to get more out of hard training that some older athletes. It’s definitely an off the radar pick but that’s the whole point!
Pursuit: As we all know the Pursuit race is unique to biathlon as it is directly set up by the Sprint race. Have a disaster in the Sprint race and you’ve taken yourself out of the Pursuit as well. But it also allows for redemption. Say you have just one untimely miss and finish off the podium? Well you’re easily within striking distance for a comeback. The Pursuit race in general will reward 2 things: Good shooting, and competitive spirit. Of course good shooting makes sense because you can make up a big chunk of time if you shoot clean while those ahead of you head to the penalty loop. But on the course as well, the ability to mark those athletes ahead of you and either not let them get away or even claw back ground, plays a major role as well. Nor surprisingly some of the favorites in this event are the best of the best.
1.Marte Olsbu Røiseland – Marte Olsbu Røiseland has been the best overall woman on the World Cup almost since the first race. Thus far she has raced in 13 non-relay races, missing the two races in Antholz for altitude training. In those 13 races her worst finish is 12th way back in the second Sprint race in Östersund. That is also her only finish outside the top 10. She has 6 wins, and a crazy 10 top 5’s. I’m not sure what is the most wild part of any of that. She’s just having an all around phenomenal season.
While Røiseland has been terrific in just about ever race (and merely very very good in the others), she has been nearly unbeatable in Pursuit races. This season there have been five Pursuit races this season and Røiseland’s finishes have been: 1, 1, 4, 1, and 1. That’s just unreal. To be fair her starting positions were 12, 3, 1, 1, and 2nd but she still had to convert those good starting placements in to wins.
As far as her statistics this year it is easy to see why Røiseland is having such an amazing season. She’s shooting an amazing 92.5% overall including 93% standing. I single out standing because that’s when the races are in the line and she’s clearly had many opportunities to go for the win. From just a cursory glance it doesn’t appear that the pressure of having the win in her grasp is getting to her.
By any metric she is also one of the fastest woman in the World Cup. She’s certainly not as fast as Elvira Öberg or even Hanna Öberg, but she’s plenty fast enough. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at average course time rank, percent back from top 10/median, or average speed, she’s one of the top 10. Pair that with some of the best shooting and you’re going to have lots and lots of wins.
As long as she’s within range after the Sprint she’s got to be counted as a favorite for the Pursuit race. She’ll also be a favorite in the Sprint, and the Mass Start, and the Individual. She could easily walk away from these Olympics with 3-4 medals including a gold or two and it would be perfectly well deserved. She’s #1 in the world and for good reason.
2. Hanna Öberg – Besides Røiseland, Hanna Öberg has to be considered one of the favorites for the Pursuit race in this year’s Olympics. Just looking at her attributes you wouldn’t necessarily project this. She is exceptionally fast, ranking in the top 10 in course time every single race this season, and usually in the top 3. Meanwhile she is at times just an average shooter. It’s also intriguing because this season she has consistently put herself behind with untimely misses in the Sprint. But she also consistently makes up the ground with stellar Pursuit races. You can see her Sprint and Pursuit finishes below:
|Race Weekend||Sprint Finish||Pursuit Finish|
I of course left out the first Sprint race which Hanna Öberg won only because there was no Pursuit race that weekend. Nearly every weekend she makes up significant time and places to bring herself back up, oftentimes to the podium. Imagine if she could just start a little higher at the start of the race?
Hanna Öberg is shooting slightly better in Pursuits than the other races, 87% vs. 83%. Instead she is making up ground with the combination of improved shooting and her superior speed. She’s only beaten by her sister Elvira Öberg and Justine Braisaz-Bouchet on the course.
Hanna Öberg also has a bit of bulldog mentality so that when she sees somebody on the course she is able to track them down. She makes up margins on the course that are hard to measure with numbers. This makes her a tough competitor in the Pursuit and Mass Start races, which are not surprisingly her two disciplines with her highest podium percentages.
3. Elvira Öberg
4. Dorothea Wierer
5. Lisa Hauser
6. Dzinara Alimbekava
7. Julia Simon
8. Marketa Davidová
9. Kristina Reztsova
10. Vanessa Voigt – Vanessa Voigt is the young up and coming future for the German women’s team. In her first full season on the World Cup she’s showing incredible potential. At this early point in her career her shooting is ahead of her ski speed. In 14 races she is shooting nearly 92% which is behind just Røiseland and Lotte Lie amongst athletes who have taken at least 200 shots this season. She’s 90.9% prone and 92.7% standing. Those are just outstanding numbers for the 24 year old.
Her ski speed isn’t quite up to the same level though. Her average ski rank per race this season is 29.3. It’s good enough to have some early successes. And she’s had more and more as the season goes along. She’s had 5 top 20’s, 3 of which are in Pursuits. Twice she’s made up at least 13 places from the Sprint to the Pursuit. The problem is her slightly above average speed is putting her a little too far back at the start of the Pursuit to quite crack the top 10.
She has gotten into the top 10 just 1 time this season, in the Mass Start in Antholz. That is encouraging to me because it proves that when she shoots well and starts on even footing she’s able to finish high. It also shows that she can compete at altitude which is important in these Olympic Games. If she can limit her losses to the top women in the Sprint she has the kind of skills that can help her perform very well in the Pursuit.
Off the Radar:
11. Jessica Jislova – Jessica Jislova has become one of my favorite athletes to root for this season. I really enjoy watching athletes put in the work and make the improvements. This season Jislova has made tremendous improvements in her shooting. Right now she is shooting 91.25% overall which is 5th best amongst women with more than 10 races this season. That’s a massive improvement from last season when she was at just 75.3% and even well above her previous career best of 85.7% from 2017-2018.
The biggest thing holding her back has been her skiing. She is pretty much the definition of average on the skis. Other women in her range include Lena Haecki, Michela Carrara, and Clare Egan. These aren’t bad biathletes by any means, but they wouldn’t ever be confused with speedsters.
Because of these attributes she’s going to have her best success in races that prize shooting. This season that has resulted in her having her best results in Pursuits and Mass Starts. (I am highlighting a different under the radar athlete in Mass Start so Jislova slots in here). She’s going to need to set herself up well in the Sprint, but if she can be within shouting distance a perfect day could find her reaching the top 5-10. That would be an excellent finish for her!
Mass Start: This is just classic biathlon. 30 biathletes start on the line, first one to the finish wins. There are more strategy and tactical battles in a Mass Start than any other races and it’s always fascinating to see them play out. Winners are usually rewarded for their good shooting, with slower good shooters able to find their way to the top as they continue to avoid penalty loops. Speedsters are sometimes able to build themselves large leads on the course which allows them a few precious seconds to slow down on the range and avoid the misses. You have to decide when to step on the gas, and when to relax. Coming at the end of 2 weeks of difficult races in challenging conditions on undoubtedly tired legs and emotional fatigue this promises to be a wild race. If you’re looking for upset finishes this might be the place to look.
1.Dorothea Wierer x – Dorothea Wierer is a two time crystal globe winner. At the World Championships she has 3 gold medals and 2 silvers. She has 13 total World Cup level wins and 42 podium finishes. She’s had success just about everywhere in biathlon…except the Olympics. She made the decision before the season started to sacrifice any chances in the overall crystal globe race to focus just on the Olympics.
For much of the season this appeared to be foolish. In the first month of the season she looked nothing like the Dorothea we all knew and respected. It was difficult to tell if she had made a smart decision and would heading towards a peak at the right time, or if her career had fallen off a cliff she may never recover from. We know now that it was a perfectly executed plan.
Since the return to racing after Christmas in Oberhof Wierer has looked better and better. Her ski rank literally improved by the race: 36, 26, 13, 12, 7, and finally 2nd. Not surprisingly her finishes have been trending upward as well: 10, 15, 3, 7, and 5. This then culminated in the win in the Mass Start, the last race in Antholz.
It is abundantly clear that Dorothea Wierer is back to being top notch Dorothea Wierer. This has to be exceptionally scary for the rest of the women in the field. What has to be even more worrisome to the is that her shooting over that stretch has been 86% which is slightly above where it was during her crystal globe winning years.
At this point we know Wierer had a very strong plan to build to a peak for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games and she has carried it out to perfection. She’s obviously at peak ski form. Her shooting is as good as she could have hoped for. She just won the Mass Start in Antholz, the closest analogue to Zhangjiakou in terms of altitude. She’s going to be a threat to win not only the Mass Start but several races.
2. Marte Olsbu Røiseland
3. Julia Simon
4. Elvira Öberg
5. Dzinara Alimbekava – Has there been a more consistent woman on the World Cup than Dzinara Alimbekava? I would argue Røiseland but besides that it has to be Alimbekava. That isn’t too surprising because as we head to the Olympics she is currently #2 in the overall standings behind Røiseland. She’s finished outside the top 10 just twice, and one of those was an 11th place. She’s finished 4th place six times this season to go along with two podium finishes. Unfortunately though she’s just missed out on a handful of wins. Just imagine if she could have turned those 4th places into podiums? We would be talking about a completely different World Cup overall race right now. That’s the nature of sport though!
What a remarkable rise this is for her. Before last season her previous best overall finish was 53rd. Last season she was 7th. Now she’s currently in 2nd place. And this hasn’t nearly been luck, she’s turned herself into a terrific all around biathlete. Her average ski rank per race over the last four years is: 49, 63, 14, and this season 10th. Her total shooting percentage over those four seasons is 83, 75, 84, and this season 89.7%. It’s no wonder she’s been competitive in nearly every single race this season. Alimbekava is just 26 so if she can find just a bit more speed and 1-2% more accuracy on the range we’re looking a woman who will be one of the favorites for the overall crystal globe.
Right now though we’re focused on the next two weeks, and we cannot underestimate her chances. She is just a handful of seconds or 1-2 misses on the range away from having 8 podium finishes this season. Her form if showing no signs of deterioration as since the holiday break she has finished no lower than 7th including both of her podiums and two of the 4th places. The last thing we saw of her was a 2nd place finish in the Mass Start in Antholz. I see no reason to think she can’t carry this over to China, and if she does she is in position to come home with a medal.
6. Hanna Öberg
7. Markéta Davidová
8. Anais Chevalier-Bouchet
9. Kristina Reztsova – Kristina Reztsova has been on of the revelations of the season. Before the season started she was a 26 year old with 12 total races to her credit. Her career best to that point was an 18th place finish and she had just 2 top 20’s. She then missed all of last season due to pregnancy. When the season started I can’t imagine that she nor the Russian team expected her to be able to accomplish what she has.
She started out the year with an 8th in the Individual, a dramatic personal best right out of the gate. After several more career average races she has since had five more top 10 finishes including her first career podium, a 3rd place, in the Annecy Mass Start. It wasn’t just that she came into the season having made a dramatic leap forward, she’s continued to improve as the year moves along. She continues to get faster nearly every weekend. Since Hochfilzen she has never ranked less than 10th in ski speed in any race. In the Antholz Mass Start she ranked 3rd, nearly a career best.
She hadn’t had quite the same high finishes lately primarily due to a slip in her shooting accuracy. But she finished the pre Olympic racing on a high note finishing 4th in the Antholz Mass Start. Before the season she was well off the radar screen. As of today she is firmly on it. I don’t know if I would qualify her as a favorite to medal but if she does end up on the podium I won’t be surprised at all. And of all of the disciplines the Mass Start is the one for her to do it in.
10. Vanessa Voigt
Off the Radar:
11. Lotte Lie – This pick would have looked a lot better a couple of weeks ago. Before the holidays she was having a break out year. She’s fallen a bit back to her career average over the last few weeks but she still has the skills and the recent experience this year to make an impact on these Olympic Games.
Before the holiday break Lie was making a habit of finishing in the top 20. Prior to this season in 22 career races she has zero top 20 finishes. Through the first four weekends of this season she had 5 this season alone peaking with a career best of 13th in both the Pursuit and Mass Start in Annecy le Grand Bornand. Since the holiday break she hasn’t quite been able to recapture the magic with just one top 20, finishing 18th in the Mass Start in Antholz.
So what makes her competitive? Well she’s an exceptionally good shooter. Of women with more than 200 shots this season she is 2nd at 92.08% behind only Marte Olsbu Røiseland at 92.5%. In biathlon going clean on the range can make up for a lot of time. Prior to the break she was actually shooting a little bit better as she’s had two “bad” days at 80% in the Ruhpolding Sprint and 85% in the Antholz Individual dragging her average down a touch.
What really changed to bring her finishes back down closer to her career averages was that her ski speed dropped back down. In the early part of the season she was showing an improved form on the course that she’s never had previously in her career. She was regularly finishing in the 30’s in course time rank. Since the holiday break that’s slipped back down to the 40-50’s range. With that sort of speed she has to be near perfect to be in the top 20 and those 80-85% shootings just weren’t going to cut it.
So why am I optimistic about her? Well she’s an amazing shooter and that can be a great equalizer. If she can be shooting in the 95% range she can be competitive. She’s also going to need to, at the very least, be back at her pre-holiday break level ski form. That is asking a lot but we’re looking for somebody under the radar who could surprise and anybody in this category would need to have a tremendous performance to rise up to the top 5/10 level. Even still she may need some help with others struggling on the range. No matter what, I’ll be pulling for her!
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