Biathlon: accumulated snow has become the “norm” of winter sports

How are race tracks made? What are the future developments in the background of global warming? Response elements and perspectives after the snow trucking controversy ahead of the Biathlon World Cup stage that started Thursday in Grand Bornand.

. Where does drifting snow come from?

It is “storage snow” protected from the previous winter by a “snow breeding technique”, i.e. by covering it with a thick layer of sawdust with “natural insulating qualities”, Yannick Aujuannet, general secretary of the organizing committee, told AFP at the World Cup stage in Grand-Bornand. He adds that this process allows to retain 70-80% of the original volume.

In this case, this snow is made up of “50% artificial snow” and “50% natural snow” produced from rainwater from the hillside reservoirs of the village of Haut-Savoyard, continues Yannick Aujouannet.

Specifically, this is half of the 24,000 m3 used earlier in the month to cover the track, which was trucked in from the Chinaillon storage site, nine kilometers from the biathlon stadium. The other half was kept directly on the racetrack.

. Is this artificial snow cover exceptional?

Max Cobb, secretary general of the International Biathlon Federation (IBU), told AFP that “I can say that I don’t know of a site where we have held a World Cup on natural snow only in the last five years.”

Even in Kontiolahti, Finland, about 500 kilometers north of Helsinki, where the season starts in late November, snow is used.

“Let’s be clear: there is beautiful snow, everything looks white, but if there wasn’t a piece of artificial snow on the track, we wouldn’t be able to organize this race here in Finland. Natural snow alone is not enough,” admits Max. Cobb.

Apart from biathlon, in which he has participated internationally for three decades, the IBU leader notes that “winter sports could not survive without accumulated snow, which is the norm today.”

The problem is also the quality of the snow cover required by the IBU to offer a safe and fair sporting competition: “very compact, not loose”, describes Yannick Aujouannet. “You don’t make Usain Bolt run 100 meters on a dirt track. Skiers are the same,” he compares.

“We have that quality with either artificial snow or stockpiled snow,” he explains. To achieve the same thing as natural snow, “a lot of work is required, which means using snow blowers, compacting and hardening it,” which would not be carbon-neutral.

. What opportunities is the IBU considering?

In the short term, and amid growing environmental concerns, the IBU “does not expect any changes” to the calendar, its general secretary explains, which has stopped until the end of the Olympics and will continue until 2026.

And then?

The shooting range, during training before the Grand-Bornand Biathlon Cup event, December 14, 2022 (AFP – JEFF PACHOUD)

“The solution for us is to play very carefully on the geographical approach in our programming. Think about whether we can have the first two stages in the Nordic countries (editor’s note, which currently only host the first stage of the World Cup circuit) and then come down to Central Europe. It’s something we will discuss for sure. thing,” he recalls, except “to squeeze the calendar too hard, otherwise we treat biathletes like gladiators.”

For Le Grand-Bornand, for example, January “would be perfect. I confess I would sleep better at night,” kicks Yannick Aujouannet.

Another track that could give cold sweats to the French stage was marked, raising the minimum height set by the authorities for the organization of the World Cup stage, culminating at 928 m.

“Currently the (lower) limit is 800 m. In the long term, we will probably have to see if we can raise it,” notes Max Cobb.

Current IBU rules limit the maximum altitude of its race courses to 1,800 m.

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