In some aspects, I’m a typical German. For instance, I have a big interest in biathlon. Biathlon is a combination sport of cross-country skiing and shooting. Each 2-3km loop of skiing is followed by a set of 5 targets. Depending on the format, athletes will get a time penalty or have to run a penalty loop if they miss a target.
Biathlon is a hugely popular TV sport in Germany with a big fan base. It’s maybe even more popular than alpine skiing in recent years. (A few years back, ski jumping was the most popular winter sport in German television. Germans are really into weird activities in the snow. We also absolutely adore curling for the occasion of every Winter Olympics.) Germans are traditionally also very successful in this sport, even though not too many people practice it actively. And while there’s a lot of TV exposure, it’s certainly not a sport to get rich.
I don’t always find the time to watch it, but I do make sure to watch at least some races every year. I’ve been to the biathlon arenas in Oberstdorf and Ruhpolding, two of the fixed stations of the annual World Cup. However, I’ve never been to an actual biathlon race. Until yesterday, that is.
A few weeks back, I had the spontaneous idea to look for tickets for the biathlon World Cup in Antholz (Anterselva) in South Tyrol. They were basically sold out except for tickets along the track. That was not really my interest. On the track, I’d have an amazing look at the athletes in running, but I might not fully get what’s happening at the range. Also, I wanted to experience the atmosphere during the shootings and the finish. It turned out I was lucky. Via the second hand market, I got hold of seating tickets in block V1 of the Südtirol Arena. That’s just next to the big ‘1’ in this stadium graphic.
1. How you should dress
Warm. But smart. Don’t just wear the thickest clothing you find. Take layers. Take functional gear. (Again: I’m German. We love dressing up in functional gear for no apparent reason. Here is a reason – naturally I recommend it.) I had functional long underwear under my jeans. I also had a functional base layer under a cross-country skiing shirt (which is wind-resistant) and then wore a mid-warm street jacket on top. At the beginning, it still snowed, and had that continued, I would have switched the jacket to a water-resistant soft-shell. Many people had transparent rain overthrows. I didn’t see them on sale, so you should have a look at the weather report.
I had cross-country skiing trousers as a back-up for the legs and a normal pullover as another back-up for the top. I protected my neck with a buff and had a good woolen cap as well. For the hands, I first used a pair of wind-resistant thinner gloves, before I switched to thicker gloves during the hike. The thinner gloves would have been able to fit underneath the thicker gloves if necessary.
I didn’t bring a seat cover, but I should have done that. It wasn’t too cold, but there was snow on the seats. I used a tissue to dry them, which was fine. A seat cover (just a tiny bit of cardboard, for instance) might have been easier and was what most people used.
2. Getting there
I went up to Antholz from Bozen, which is a rather lengthy ride away. But, hey, that’s where we have our base in Südtirol. I took a train at 9 – earlier is not really comfortable, and later is a bit sharp. I needed to switch in Franzensfeste, where the connecting train was just waiting. Had I missed that one, the next one would have been 30min later. I had accounted for that buffer (under normal conditions). After a total transit time of one-and-a-half hours, I reached Olang.
There, I needed to switch into a bus shuttle to Antholz. That should usually be just there waiting for the spectators, but fresh snow that had fallen over night and the car traffic didn’t really help the organizers. I think we waited 20min, but then I was lucky enough to get directly into the first shuttle. The shuttle then went to the general parking area in Antholz itself and on the way got a bit stuck in the traffic again. In Antholz, I switched into another bus shuttle (there’s a 400m walk in between both shuttles) which brought spectators close to the stadium. I walked another 400m slightly uphill until I reached the access to the stadium. There was no extensive security control except for the ticket, but so there was also no queue. Inside the stadium, I walked another 200m to get to my spot. I was sitting at 12:20, 10min before the start of the first race.
3. The race format
At each World Cup, men and women will do a number of races. Both men and women do the same races, but women’s loops will be a tiny bit shorter. During the mass start that I attended, it was 2.5km instead of 3km – the difference helps organizers to fit it into the tight TV schedule.
(Side note: You should consider that every weekend from late November till Mid March, one of Germany’s two big public TV stations will show winter sports all day on Saturday and Sunday, and for some sports also during the week. Biathlon has that during-the-week privilege. Basically, every winter weekend, there’s a mini Winter Olympics in television, and TV stations usually show both men’s and women’s events for all disciplines.)
The final race of a biathlon weekend is usually either a team’s relay or a mass start. In the mass start, the field is constituted as such: the 25 best athletes in the overall World Cup standings plus the best five athletes beyond these 25 athletes based on their performance in other races during the weekend. Usually, there’s a total of 100 athletes competing in biathlon (and then multiply that with two, since it’s men and women). This gives nations without a big biathlon tradition a chance to participate, while nations like Germany, Norway, and Russia can still send big teams. But there’s only 30 spots at the shooting range – hence, some races just don’t have the capacity to accommodate for the weakest athletes.
If I were to pick one… no, I can’t. I’d recommend to pick a race where the first to finish is the one who wins the race. There’s a mode where the race format is more like a time trial in cycling, but in cycling the best athletes start last, while in biathlon the order is more random. That doesn’t make it super easy to follow while being in the stadium. Pursuit, mass start, and relay, however, are easy: who finishes first celebrates first.
4. What you don’t see in the stadium
There’s a big mobile TV screen in the stadium that shows the international TV signal, so you actually see everything that you would also see at home. You should have rather good eyes, as the screen is placed about 100m away. However, as the athletes come into the stadium, you obviously want to look at them in real life.
I found it difficult to distinguish many nations. That’s easier for me in cycling, but clothing in winter sports is usually based on national colors, where blue, red, and white dominate too much.
Originally, I thought that my tickets were optimal. I was sitting right at the shooting range. Unfortunately, my eyes are not as razor-sharp and super-zooming as a good television camera. And they can’t handle picture-in-picture. I could either look at them and see them lying still on the ground. Or I could look at the targets and see them hit the bullets. Or not. But if they would not hit the bullets, I would not really know. In television, there’s a virtual red blink every time a specific athlete misses a target. In reality, that doesn’t exist – too much visual distraction for the athletes.
5. What you only see in the stadium
Imagine that you really come to see one specific athlete and he or she is not having good day. For the TV signal, she’ll be too far behind to get any pictures. In the stadium, you will still see her shooting. In fact, there was a Russian athlete who was rather slow and not the best at the shooting range, and she was circulating three to five minutes behind the rest. She honestly got more applause than the winner. Another day in Antholz, one (Italian) athlete lost her skiing pole when her follower accidentally stepped on it – that follower (Darya Domracheva from Belarus) than gave the Italian the spot in an act of sportsmanship. This is also one aspect that I really enjoy about biathlon – and winter sports in general: it’s rather free of hardcore rivalries. There are no hooligans like in football. Athletes speak honorable about each other. Participation is the first achievement. Not winning is no shame. It’s a family sport, in the best sense of it. Only that most of the audience is way above 40.
Anyways, being in the stadium is not about having the best views, but about experiencing the atmosphere of positive people cheering. That’s something you will get at the track as much as at the stadium. At the stadium, you see start, shooting, and finish better than from the track. You don’t see them much battling for position on the track. Not at all, if it was not for the mobile TV screen.
6. Where you should sit or stand in Antholz
I’ve already indicated that my tickets were less awesome than they looked to be. If you’re into a seating ticket, the best block will be D or E – in one of the higher rows (9 to 12) in order to sit high enough. On the one hand, you still have a good look at the shooting range. In that case, you look over the athletes from kind of behind, and so you see the targets behind them. That actually improves the experience. You also have a better angle to see the targets of those athletes further in the back. Next, you have a perfect view on the penalty loop, which is the most skiing action that there is anywhere in the stadium.
You still see well the finish line, which I could not really spot anymore so easily from my seats. (For the second race, I vacated my seat after the last shooting and went closer to the finish line instead.) And then, finally, you are sitting almost exactly in front of the podium for the ceremony. That ceremony was a bit lost, unfortunately. People left early in order to get away, because getting away can take a while. More on that in a moment.
The standing area on top of the sitting area might be a bit more atmospheric. That’s the area where people display their fandom with funny hats and decorated flags. If you prefer the middle of the crowd, the central part of L and the lower ranks of M2 are good choices that offer angles which are similar to the seating areas of D and E. However, seats are assigned by row and seat number. You have to find your standing spot yourself. Hence, you also should arrive earlier, and you should not take that long of a break if you want to recover the same great spot for the second race. That’s a personal trade-off. Personally, I prefer the seat to reduce the slack time.
7. In between races: a warm soup and a hike over a frozen lake
The women’s race started at 12:30 and lasted about 40 minutes. The men’s race started at 14:45 and lasted another 45 minutes. That gave me about 90 minutes to fill. I didn’t just want to sit around, but rather wanted to use the chance to walk a bit and keep me warm. First, I had a goulash soup. That’s meat in a spicy kind of broad. It’s a traditional Eastern European recipe that also is commonly prepared in Austria, Bavaria, and Eastern Germany – and in Südtirol. I found that one surprisingly yummy for what had been cooked days in advance for thousands of people. I actually would have enjoyed it as much in a restaurant and thought the five Euro were a great investment.
Then I left the arena via its Northern exit. That’s possible, but you need to take your ticket. There were some sings that indicated a winter hike towards, around and over the Lake of Antholz. That’s a stunning lake also in Summer, but in winter everything is frozen. In fact, it is so frozen that a big machine that prepares cross-country skiing tracks can ride over it safely.
With the fresh snow from last night, this was a pure winter wonderland. All trees were deeply covered in snow. There were snowy clouds hanging still in the mountains. I followed in the steps of others in front of me, because the snow left and right was so deep that I would have been sinking in soft powder that was something like 20cm deep. Marvelous. Crossing the lake took me about 20 minutes. On the other side, there’s another (not too busy) restaurant for a quick bite if you wish.
Beyond that, the road continues, but it’s not cleared from snow beyond the biathlon arena and after 200m I reached a road barrier that warned of avalanche risks ahead. People had passed it, but I anyways needed to turn around. I took a second path across the ice, which apparently had been used more frequently. Again 10 minutes before the start of the men’s race, I had completed my hike and returned to my seat. This flat loop of 4km took me almost exactly one hour, including photo stops and such. I stopped a number of times. Thick snow really amazes me.
8. Getting away
I was still among the early crowds from the stadium to leave. People from the track had started to leave earlier, because the action had also passed earlier for them. At that point, it was time to shuttle again, but this time a larger crowd of people arrived there at the same time. It took me 10 minutes (at most) for the first 300m to the bus and then another 20 minutes for the last 100m. That was not very much – people that departed from the stadium later might easily wait longer than that.
I then walked over fast to the next shuttle (the one to the train station) and caught the last spot on the one that was about to depart. (The next one was already standing behind it and would likely have left five minutes later.) I think children in the bus might have been jealous at me, because I was standing in the entrance area and was basically closer to the front window than the driver. There is no better view in a bus.
Out of the valley, there was no big traffic (yet). We reached the train station smoothly. I had five minutes until the next train would arrive and found comfortable seating in said train. At that time, trains run every 30 minutes, so making or missing a train really would not be that big of a problem. (There’s even a heated waiting area at the train station.) In Franzenfeste, I again had a tight, but working connection. Also there, the next train would have run only 30 minutes later. Still, I was happy about the super-easy transitions.
Exactly ten hours after I had left the house, I was back home. I think I got more actual sports out of it than from watching the Giro d’Italia or Il Lombardia as a cyclist. I very much enjoyed the hike in between. It added a lot of value. It’s a different way of following the sport – in a way more participatory, but more removed from the progress of the races. If the occasion pops up, I might do it again – but then with people to share the soup with. And maybe sing along the Antholz biathlon song.