The World is Watching
This month, 120 million people are tuning their TVs to the Biathlon World Cup in Aroostook County.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Dennis Welsh
It was the sort of warm television feature that fans of the Olympic Games and other international sports events know well: the home team, granted a little downtime, ventures outside the sports village to partake of an activity that defines the character of the host community. Viewers get up close and personal with their favorite athletes and gain surprising insight into the culture of a land thousands of miles away.
On this occasion — the 2004 Biathlon World Cup — the millions of viewers were in Germany, and they watched the German biathlon team, clad in smart red, white, and blue jackets, zip across Long Lake in the St. John Valley hamlet of St. Agatha on snowmobiles. Afterward, the team gathered around their guide, retired Maine game warden Gary Pelletier, as he raised an iron kettle of beanhole beans from a smoking pit.
“We opened our doors for them,” remembers Pelletier, who recruited forty-odd sleds from neighbors and invited some German-speaking friends to help the guests feel at home. His mother, brothers, and other family members helped prepare the beans and grill the steaks, and when the feed was over, everyone gathered around a bonfire and sang. “It was heartfelt,” Pelletier says. “We were brought up giving, not taking. You give from the heart.”
Europe had discovered Aroostook County.
This February the Continent is coming back. One hundred-twenty million overseas television viewers will be focused on Presque Isle (February 4-6) and Fort Kent (February 10-13) as two hundred-and-forty athletes from thirty countries compete in back-to-back events for the 2011 Biathlon World Cup. The biathletes will be accompanied by more than three hundred support staff — coaches, doctors, technicians, massage therapists, officials, and the like. Roughly forty television crews will record their feats along with the reactions of 3,000 to 5,000 spectators each day.
The tour’s significance in the sports world is lost on most Americans because they know little about biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing with precision shooting. “Biathlon is the premier winter sport of Europe,” explains Seth Greening, who chairs the committee creating a database of spectator lodging for the Fort Kent event. “It’s as if NASCAR and the Super Bowl were combined.”
Credit for Aroostook County’s emergence into the international biathlon scene goes to the twelve-year-old Maine Winter Sports Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes skiing and other winter sports through programs designed to double as economic engines for communities around the state. In the County, as the vast rural region bordering New Brunswick and Quebec is simply known, the center has built two biathlon courses that meet International Biathlon Union standards — the 10th Mountain Ski Center in Fort Kent and the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle.
After the 2004 Biathlon World Cup in Fort Kent, word spread about the courses’ quality, as well as the region’s plentiful snowfall (116 inches a year). Several other major competitions have been held at both venues, and members of the American Olympic team have lived and trained there.
Presque Isle and Fort Kent are the seventh and eighth of nine 2011 Biathlon World Cup events, and the only North American venues. “They are the only back-to-back World Cups that are just an hour apart, which is going to be really nice for the athletes,” says Andy Shepard, president of the Maine Winter Sports Center. He estimates that $4 million to $5 million will be pumped in the region’s economy during the ten days of competition. Fort Kent was informed of its selection a year and a half ago, but Presque Isle learned only last June when Lake Placid, New York, withdrew from consideration.
The St. John Valley has distinguished itself as an uncommonly hospitable stop on the biathlon circuit. In 2004, one thousand cheering and banner-waving people, including schoolchildren who had formed fan clubs for individual athletes, greeted the teams when they arrived at Presque Isle’s Northern Maine Regional Airport after traveling from Lake Placid. A contingent of police cars and fire engines, sirens blaring and lights flashing, escorted the team buses to Fort Kent. “I was surprised by this,” Germany’s Uschi Disl told the Bangor Daily News at the time. “We never get such a welcome anywhere else.”
It didn’t stop there. The evening before the competition opened, the athletes were invited to ride on floats in an international light parade that began in Claire, New Brunswick, and crossed the St. John River into Fort Kent.
And whenever they went into town (where they cleaned out stores of their inventories of cheap American blue jeans and cameras), they were stopped by locals who welcomed them into their homes to use the Internet and in a few cases invited entire teams to dinner.
This time around, organizing committees in both towns are mobilizing volunteers — eight hundred in all — to tend to myriad details, from finding housing for athletes and spectators to arranging for parking and transportation to organizing festivities, including events focusing on the area’s Acadian heritage. Their aim is to make sure that athletes and visitors get the same royal treatment they did last time — times two.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Dennis Welsh