It was an unusually busy Saturday in Canmore, a village of approximately 4,000 people about 65 miles west of Calgary at the foot of the Rockies. As a Chinook passed through, melting the ice sculptures in the town square, and an oompah band clad in lederhosen entertained townsfolk and tourists, 71 skiers glided through the nearby woods with rifles strapped to their backs. Canmore was hosting the 20-kilometer biathlon, a sport that combines cross-country skiing and riflery, and 10,000 of the curious were there to observe.
The subject of closest attention was one of the finest biathletes ever, Frank-Peter Roetsch of East Germany, the silver medalist in the 20-km at the 1984 Olympics and winner of three gold medals at the world championships in Lake Placid last year. But many Americans had come to see whether the predictions could possibly be true: that Josh Thompson, a 26-year-old from Gunnison, Colo., actually had a chance to win an Olympic medal in a sport that is virtually owned by the Scandinavians, East Germans and Soviets.
Thompson had won a silver in the 20-km at the 1987 worlds, and though the best performance by an American in Olympic competition had been 14th place (John Burritt in 1960 and Peter Karns in 1972), Thompson was confident he could at least crack the top 10 at Canmore. But when the shooting stopped, Thompson was a dismal 25th; as expected, Roetsch skied off with the gold, in 56 minutes, 33.3 seconds.
The biathlon is as much a test of composure as it is a race against the clock. Biathletes leave from a starting gate just in front of the stands, one at a time, one minute apart, each with a .22 caliber rifle on his back, to ski the 3.75-km first leg of the race. After completing that loop they return to the area in front of the stands to shoot at a row of five small circular targets 50 meters away. Pacing is crucial.
February 29, 1988
If a competitor has skied too quickly, he will be unable to slow his breathing and heartbeat as he approaches the range. The best biathletes are able to come down from around 180 beats per minute when they're skiing the course to 120 when they're shooting. And they will squeeze the trigger in that millisecond when the body is at its stillest—between breaths and heartbeats.
The first real medal contender, Valeri Medvedtsev, 23, of the Soviet Union, left the starting gate at 11:26 a.m., wearing a form-fitting racing skin of turquoise with red, white and black stripes on the legs. Medvedtsev had won a World Cup 20-km on this same course in February 1987. Roetsch, 23, wearing the blue and white of East Germany, left the gate 17 minutes later. At the Games' opening ceremonies, Roetsch had carried the East German flag. A modest sort, he had said, "There is surely someone better than me to carry the flag." But his comrades insisted.
By the time Roetsch skied off into the woods, many of the competitors who had started earlier were on the range for their first round of target shooting. In each of four rounds the biathletes fire five shots at five targets. The first and third time they shoot prone, the second and fourth from the more difficult standing position. Each missed target costs the biathlete a one-minute penalty that is added to his overall time.
Thompson, smiling and chatting with race officials, looked relaxed when his start time came at 11:57. He appeared to have taken the advice of U.S. coach Sigvart Bjontegaard to heart. "I told him that the best biathlon performances don't usually come at the Olympics," said Bjontegaard. "The times are usually slower because of the pressure. Some guys choke. I told him to take it easy and be conservative."
On his first stop at the range, Thompson shot 4 for 5. That kept pace with Roetsch, who also missed one target. On the second loop, this one five kilometers long, both skied well. On the second round of shots, from a standing position, both Roetsch and Thompson again missed one shot apiece.
Back on the course Roetsch could do no wrong. While other biathletes had been unsure of what wax to use right up until the start, Roetsch had prepared his skis the evening before. The temperature was 45° by Roetsch's third leg on the course, but his skis coped perfectly with the increasingly sloppy terrain.
Back before the targets for a third time, Roetsch was perfect. Thompson matched him a few minutes later, 5 for 5. While Thompson stayed even with Roetsch on the range, the East German was beginning to control the back trails. Roetsch's superior strength was coming into play as the snow melted.
Medvedtsev was the first of the leaders to come in for his fourth and final round of shots. He missed one, bringing his total for the four rounds to 2 misses out of 20 shots. That, combined with his speed on the course, put him in first.
As Roetsch prepared for his final try at the targets, a coach told him how far he was behind the leader, but not who that pacesetter was. It didn't matter; Roetsch missed just one target and pulled 15 seconds ahead of Medvedtsev.
Roetsch was now well beyond Thompson's reach, but still within sight was a chance for the best-ever finish by an American in an Olympic biathlon. After his third shooting round, Thompson was in fourth place, only two minutes behind the leader. Thompson could finish in the top 10 with a perfect final round of shooting.
He slid to a halt in front of the the targets and pulled his rifle from its harness on his back. The front of his bright blue and neon red uniform was wet with sweat and melted snow from his prone shooting. He stood motionless as he sighted in on the first target. Thompson squeezed off his shots—and missed three of the five targets. Shocked and frustrated, he set off on the final 2.5-km leg.
Thompson crossed the finish line, tears running down his cheeks. He took his gloves off and leaned against a fence. John Morton, the Dartmouth ski coach and U.S. biathlon team leader, came over and put his arm around him.
Afterward Thompson was at a loss to explain his lapse of concentration. But U.S. assistant coach Tracy Lamb understood. "He hasn't shot like this, even in practice," said Lamb. "The difference was pressure. Pressure we put on ourselves, and what was put on us. We want it so bad. For our sport, for our team, for ourselves."
In most sports, tension and adrenaline are advantageous. Coaches try to build a fire within their athletes that will burn most brightly at the moment of competitive stress. Yet, biathletes must train themselves to relax just as that moment approaches. Although Calgary is Thompson's second Olympics—in Sarajevo he did not compete in the 20-km and finished 40th in the 10-km race—he was still not wholly prepared for Olympian pressure.
Roetsch, a national hero in East Germany who last year told Lamb that he had to win "for my country," knows how to handle pressure. Medvedtsev, who won the silver, and Johann Passler of Italy, who took the bronze, are also accustomed to fulfilling expectations.
"Thompson did well when he wasn't the favorite," said Roetsch after the race. "Here he was a favorite and you see what happened." For an American competing in the biathlon, that sort of pressure is all too new.