A Brief History of Swiss Men’s Biathlon

Switzerland, one of the premier nations of Alpine skiing, has for years lived in the shadows of the likes of Norway, France, and Germany when it comes to biathlon. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t had their own moments right? It seems too improbable that they wouldn’t have had a least a few moments in the sun. But can you name any off the top of your head? The first thoughts that come to mind are probably of Bennie Weger (and his glorious beard). Maybe you thought of the Swiss women and the Gasparin sisters?

As the Swiss team has had a bit of renaissance this season I have become more and more interested in them. This project started as a Twitter thread in which I drove down the metaphorical rabbit hole trying to find the best moments in the history of the Switzerland men’s biathlon team. It was an amazing and eye opening experience. Fair warning, at university I studied history so this is always a passion of mine. I love diving deep into a subject and learning more. And in doing so finding little connections along the way that we’ve all forgotten but are too delicious not to bring up.

Below I’m going to lay out a rough chronological history of Swiss men’s biathlon in the “modern” era. I’m qualifying the modern era as the beginning of the World Cup in 1977. Records don’t really get consistent until the early 1990’s with the birth of the IBU in 1993. Unfortunately a lot of things I went looking for have likely been lost to the sands of time. I’ll need to revisit this project at some point in the future if I have the time to really get deep into it. Depending on the reaction to this I may do a similar thing with other teams likely starting with the Swiss women.

It is laid out by date with each date corresponding to a major event in this history of the men’s Swiss biathlon team. You’ll quickly figure out what that means. For nearly every date I discovered some other really interesting tidbits that I shared too. I hope you find these interesting too because it is amazing how many of these dates and how many of these Swiss athletes intersected with other important moments and athletes of biathlon history.

With that said…I present A Brief History of Swiss Men’s Biathlon:

March 18, 1993: In the last weekend of racing in the 1992-1993 season Jean-Marc Chabloz gets the first top 10 in the history of Swiss men’s biathlon. Chabloz shot 18/20 in the Individual race to finish in 4th place. 4th! First top 10 in the history of Switzerland and Chabloz almost went straight to the podium missing 3rd place by just 5 seconds. This was just the third season in Chabloz’s career and to this point he had just three top 20s. He would never finish higher than 4th for the rest of his career.

This was an important race for one other reason too. It was also the very first career World Cup race in the career of Ole Einar Bjoerndalen. He finished 29th with three misses and was +4:42. Bjoerndalen, inarguably one of the greatest of all time would go on to race a total of 582 total races including solo events and relays. He would accumulate 95 solo wins, 41 relay wins, 13 Olympic medals, 45 World Championship medals 6 Overall crystal globes and 20 discipline globes. But this day was his very first race.

One last note on this race, other names you might recognize include Sven Fischer finishing 14th and Ricco Gross finishing 25th. However Alfred Eder also competed in this race and finished 19th. I mention this because at the time of this race Alfred Eder was 40 years old. I wonder where his son gets it from?

January 1, 2000 – No, no racing happened on this day. But it is a nice round number where we can assess the success of the Swiss men in biathlon up to this point. So far we have one man who has finished in the top 10: Jean-Marc Chabloz. Through this date he had accounted for all of the success of the Swiss. However, as the 21st Century got underway we’re about to see many new success for the team!

March 11, 2004 – The last World Cup race of Jean-Marc Chabloz’s career took place in Oslo as he finished 80th place in the Sprint. As the leading man of Swiss biathlon up to this point he had two 4th place finishes (the 2nd was in an Individual race in Soldier Hollow in February 2001), five total top 10s, and 24 top 20s.

It was a lonely effort for him with not much support from any other many that raced alongside him. For multiple seasons Switzerland was unable to put enough men up to fill out a full relay team. It took until the last few seasons of his career before he would be able to share a team with another man who would some day finish in the top 10. He rarely ever had a man beside him could break the top 30.

copyright http://www.projektp.se Photo Credit Per Danielsson

If you take nothing else away from this whole exercise I hope you have an appreciate for Jean-Marc Chabloz, the lonely leader of the Swiss men’s biathlon over the first decades of the modern era of biathlon competitions. If you’re wondering where he is these days, well he’s currently working with the Swedish national team as their shooting coach. While he may not have been able to drag the Swiss team to much success his efforts as a coach have seen Elvira Oeberg develop into an athlete who can win races as much with her rifle as her legs. It’s gratifying to see him achieve these successes.

Photo Credit Peter Klaunzer

January 9, 2005: Matthias Simmen joins Chabloz as only the 2nd Swiss man to ever achieve a top 10 in a World Cup event. Simmen had joined the Switzerland World Cup squad four seasons earlier making his debut in Ruhpolding finishing 77th in a Sprint race won by Bjoerndalen (of course) and with Egil Gjelland making the podium as well.

Four years later, back in Germany, but now in Oberhof, Simmen started the Pursuit in 16th place and with relatively good shooting of 17/20 he moved his way up to 9th place finishing 0.9 seconds ahead of the 11th place finisher and 0.5 seconds ahead of Bjorn Ferry.

The day, by all accounts that I can find, had good weather. Partly cloudy, right around freezing with just a breath of breeze. I mention this because in this race there were 0 clean shootings. The best day on the range was 18/20 by Raphael Poiree who came away with the win. The wild shooting led to some absolutely huge swings. Alexander Wolff made the podium after starting in 14th place. Ricco Gross used an 18/20 to move up from 18th to 6th, and Michal Greiss went from 22nd to 7th. Meanwhile Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, started in 4th place, had 6 misses, and finished in 4th just 13 seconds from the win. Holy cow! Frode Andersen on the other hand had 13 misses. What was going on on the range?!?

December 8th, 2006: In a Sprint race in Hochfilzen Matthias Simmen won 3rd place and became the first Swiss man to climb on to the podium in modern biathlon history. Simmen had two misses but had the 2nd best course time on the day coming in just 6.2 seconds back of Bjoerndalen to cap off an incredible race. I’m sure dear reader, you are stunned to learn that Bjoerndalen ultimately won the race.

For Simmen this was the 2nd of 3 career top 10’s that he would have. His World Cup career that started in January 2001 would eventually come to an end almost exactly a decade later after a disappointing 83rd in the 2011 Oslo Sprint race. In total ran 229 total race and achieved three top 10s, including the first podium finish for the Swiss men, 24 top 20’s, and helped bring about the first successes for the Swiss men in relays (documented below). After Chabloz led the team for so long Simmen admirably pushed the team along to even greater heights.

Image Credit: imago sportfotodienst/GEPA pictures

December 9th, 2007: In the Hochfilzen relay for the 2007-2008 season the Swiss men achieved the first top 5 in their history!!! On this day as in so many others the Norwegians absolutely rocked the competition finishing an absolutely punishing 2:25 ahead of the Russian squad who came in 2nd.

The Swiss team made up of Simon Halenbarter, Matthias Simmen, Claudio Boeckli, and Ivan Joller beat the Swedes by just 4 seconds to grab the top 5. Amazingly entering the last leg Boeckli had them up to 2nd place! While they couldn’t hang on to the podium they did have a tremendous finish.

When the Switzerland men’s biathlon team reached the top 5 for the first time in this race it was easy to believe that a podium could be in their future. As we sit here almost 16 full seasons later the Swiss men have matched the 5th place finish twice more but have never quite beaten it. The closest they came to a new best was Antholz 2013 when they were just 7 seconds behind Sweden for the 4th place position.

Simon Hallenbarter was a member of this relay and several of the other best relays in the history of the Swiss men. Halebarter’s particular story is a sad one. A solid cross country athlete but was never quite able to break through on the top level prompting the switch to biathlon in 2002. By late 2005 he became just the 3rd Swiss man to finish in the top 10 in a World Cup level race. In his career he totaled 9 top 10s which remains the 2nd most of any Swiss man in the history of biathlon. Following his retirement in 2013 he opened his own sports shop.

Throughout his life though Hallenbarter suffered from serious depression. This past October, at the young age of 43, he tragically took his own life while on vacation with his partner. I consider myself to be a fairly avid biathlon fan and I don’t know that I would have been able to pick Simon Hallenbarter out of a crowd. This is just one of the many reasons why I want to do this project. To be able to identify more of these athletes and celebrate them while we can.

Photo Credit: Darko Bandic

December 19, 2009: Tromas Frei, a new addition to our story, becomes just the 2nd man to score a podium for the Switzerland team! It was a Sprint race in Pokljuka where Frei achieved the only top 10 finish of his entire career. While you may not remember Frei you will absolutely know the man he beat out to grab the podium spot. It was a young man who was just racing in his 3rd career race in his first full time season. That young man, still racing today, would go on to win the Overall Crystal globe the very next season. While you might know his younger brother a little better, Tarjei Boe has become one of the most well successful and well like men of the last decade of biathlon. But it was Thomas Frei, an otherwise unknown athlete from Zurich, who denied him his first podium by the ultra thin margin of just 0.5 seconds.

As for Frei that was his one moment in the sun. He would go on to have seven total top 25’s and participated in several relays he never again replicated the glorious moment in Pokljuka. I wonder what it was about that day that made it so special? He was never a particularly fast skier, and his 14th in course time ranking that day was by far the best of his career. He shot just 9/10 which for most of his career would have made a podium impossible. For this one amazing moment though, Thomas Frei could fly and achieved what so many are never able to do.

Photo Credit Peter Klaunzer

December 16, 2010: A young man by the name of Benjamin Weger enters our story. In just his 2nd full season on the World Cup he sets a new all time best for Switzerland biathlon when he finished 2nd. It occurred in an Individual race in Pokljuka on a day in which absolutely nobody hit all 20 targets. Weger with a 19/20 was able to grab his not only his first podium but his first top 10!

I’m not sure anybody knew at the time that this was just the opening performance for a man who would become the most decorated man in this history of Switzerland’s biathlon.

December 9-10, 2011: During the Hochfilzen stop of the 2011-2012 season Benjamin Weger takes another step in entrenching himself as the greatest Swiss male biathlete of all time. He became the first Swiss man to finish on the podium twice in the same weekend when he finished 3rd in the Sprint and then backed that up on the Pursuit. For both races he was 29/30 on the range.

This was part of a great little run for Weger in the 1st trimester of that season. In those seven solo races he had 4 top 10’s including these two podium finishes. For the rest of his incredibly distinguished career that lasted from 2009 through 2022 Weger would never again have two podiums in the same weekend. He would have similar runs of top 10 finishes but none of them ever again had this high a peak. There must have been something special about those two weeks in Hochfilzen where it all came together. If you look at his statistics his peak years were a few years down the road, but going by results alone, this was the pinnacle of a very good career.

IBU Athlete Profile Picture

February 11, 2016: TWO SWISS MEN IN THE TOP 10 FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER!!!! It was a Sprint race in Presque Isle in Maine when Serafin Wiestner finished 5th and Benjamin Weger snuck in right behind him in 6th place. To the surprise of absolutely nobody JT Boe won the race with Martin Fourcade coming in 3rd to round out a pretty stacked podium.

This was the best finish of Serafin Wiestner’s career (to date!). It is an amazing feat that he was able to have one of his three top 10’s of his career on the same day as Weger also getting into the top 10. Wiestner has just 3 top 10’s in 112 career races so that’s a a 2.9% podium percentage. Somebody could do the math but the chance of it overlapping with Weger’s 19.1% podium percentage can’t be that good right? Another interesting note on Wiestner’s career, of those three top 10’s one of them happened in the Pyeongchang Olympics in the Sprint race. Well timed peak!

You may have raised your eyebrows about a race in Presque Isle in Maine. You are right it doesn’t happen very often. And when it does it is an unusual travel period. Well check out this series of races: Antholz -> Canmore -> Presque Isle, Maine -> Oslo -> Khanty Mansiysk. By my rough calculations:

  • Antholz to Canmore: 7979km = 4958 miles
  • Canmore to Presque Isle: 3440km = 2138 miles
  • Presque Isle to Oslo: 5080km = 3157 miles
  • Oslo to Khanty Mansiysk: 3041km = 1890 miles

They started the first race in Antholz January 20th and finished in Russia on March 20th. In that two month stretch these athletes covered 3 continents, 5 nations, ran 12 World Cup races plus the World Championships in Oslo. In total they traveled 19,540km and 12,143 miles. They had to be absolutely exhausted!

IBU Athlete Profile Picture

2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games: Another milestone achieved for the men of Switzerland as they had three top 10’s over the course of the Games! We already discussed one of them with Serafin Wiestner’s 9th place finish in the Sprint race. They nearly got two in the top 10 that day but Bennie Weger’s push for the top 10 ended with a miss on the standing shooting and he ended up 15th.

Weger actually had a very good Olympic Games by following up the 15th place Sprint with a 6th place in the Pursuit and the 4th best isolated pursuit time on the day. Then in the Individual he again finished 6th. He missed 4th shot of the first shooting and went clean the rest of the day. In all 4 Olympics (Vancouver, Sochi, Pyeongchang, and Beijing) and and 10 World Championships he only finished better than 6th one time. That he had his 2nd and 3rd best finishes at a championships ever in back to back races is really quite an achievement!

Here’s a random factoid that absolutely nobody asked for. Benjamin Weger raced for 267 individual races and of course had every finish imaginable with a career best of 2nd. From 2nd through 25th (I didn’t look any further) the least common finishes for him were: 2nd (once), 21st (2 finishes), and 15th (3 finishes). Pretty much every other place in there has at least 5 finishes. Why was he so averse to 15th and 21st?!?

March 20, 2022: Benjamin Weger races the very last race of his tremendous career. After 13 seasons, 346 combined solo and relay races, and lifting bring Switzerland to a new level of biathlon success, he decided to hang it up.

  • 267 total solo races
  • 5 podiums with a best of 2nd place one itme
  • 51 top 10s ranks 52nd all time amongst men
  • A member of two Swiss relay teams that finished in 5th, the best finish ever for the men of Switzerland
  • Greatest beard in the history of biathlon

At the time it felt like a real inflection point for Switzerland and biathlon. There were a number of young men who had some potential but none who had really broken through yet. Was Switzerland about to head back into the wilderness? Was all of the progress made by Weger about to be lost?

November 20, 2022: All hail the new king! Niklas Hartweg, in the very first race of the post-Weger era, equals the greatest World Cup biathlon result in the history of the men of Switzerland. In the Individual race in Kontiolahti Hartweg (who honestly could be a terrific Roger Federer impersonator) went 20/20 and officially announced himself as a name to remember on the World Cup.

We don’t exactly have a tough time remembering his name because throughout the season he continues to remind us as he has racked up three more top 10s and has finished outside the top 20 just one time in 12 total races. That’s a level of (arbitrarily determined) consistency that Weger only achieved one time, from the Sprint race in Hochfilzen in December 2017 through the Individual race at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, a stretch of 13 races.

January 21, 2023: You thought we were done? Nope! The current generation of Swiss men had another surprise for us when they, for just the second time ever, put two men in the top 10. Niklas Hartweg finished 7th and Sebastian Stalder finished 8th in the Pursuit race from Antholz. Both had decent comeback races with Hartweg climbing from 11th to 7th with just one miss coming on the 17th shot of the day. Stalder meanwhile went from 16th to 8th also shooting 19/20. In isolated pursuit times they were actually 6th (Stalder) and 8th (Hartweg).

Important note from this race? Coming in 9th place was Simon Eder. How old is Eder? 40. How old was his father Alfred Eder at the time of the very first race we mentioned in this history? Yep, 40 years old. Those Eders are a different breed.

Recap: Throuhout the modern history of biathlon in Switzerland there have been 10 men who have risen above the rest and captured a place in the top 10 of a race. These men are noted below including the date of their first career top 10 as well as their total number of top 10s and their highest career finish.

Jean-Marc Chabloz – March 18, 1993 Kontiolahti Individual race: Finished 4th

  • Total Top 10s: 5
  • Career Best: 4th place x2

Matthias Simmen – January 9, 2005 Oberhof Pursuit race: Finished 9th

  • Total Top 10s: 3
  • Career Best: 3rd place

Simon Hallenbarter – December 15, 2005 Brezno-Osrblie Individual race: Finished 8th

  • Total Top 10s: 9
  • Career Best: 6th place x2

Thomas Frei – December 19, 2009 Pokljuka Sprint race: Finished 3rd

  • Total Top 10s: 1
  • Career Best: 3rd place x1

Benjamin Weger – December 16th, 2010 Pokljuka Individual race: Finished 2nd

  • Total Top 10s: 51
  • Career Best: 2nd place

Serafin Wiestner – February 11, 2016 Presque Isle Sprint race: Finished 5th

  • Total Top 10s: 3
  • Career Best: 5th place

Mario Dolder – December 2, 2017 Oestersund Sprint race: Finished 6th

  • Total Top 10s: 1
  • Career Best: 6th

Joscha Burkhalter – January 13th, 2022 Ruhpolding Sprint race: Finished 10th

  • Total Top 10s: 1
  • Career Best: 10th

Niklas Hartweg – November 29th, 2022 Kontiolahti Individual race: Finished 2nd

  • Total Top 10s: 4
  • Career Best: 2nd

Sebastian Stalder – December 18, 2022 Annecy-le Grand Bornand Mass Start race: Finished 8th

  • Total Top 10s: 3
  • Career Best: 8th x2

No great conclusions need to be drawn from this. It is simply what it is, the fascinating picture of one nation’s men and their efforts in the sport of biathlon. If you had asked me at the end of last season I would have told you that my expectations for Switzerland were low and that it may be a few years before we hear from them again. In fact I was a little sad to see them slipping into an apparently bleak future. I was wrong. If you look at what Niklas Hartweg and Sebastian Stalder are doing right now at such young ages we may be entering a new era of biathlon for Swiss men, brighter than ever before.

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