LEE JACKSON - OLYMPIC BIATHLETE
This weekend I am racing the Engadin Cross-Country Ski Marathon in St. Moritz so I thought it would be fitting to dedicate this week’s blog post to winter sport. My inspiration to try cross-country skiing largely came from two people: Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian explorer, and Lee Jackson, a British Olympic biathlete. I first became aware of Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen while I was studying at the University of St. Andrews. Fridtjof was the first foreigner elected Rector of the Scottish university. I was captivated by his courageous expedition to the north pole and heroic cross-country skiing adventure across Greenland. His comments about the health benefits of cross-country skiing in his book recounting the Greenland expedition really stuck in my mind: “Nothing hardens the muscles and makes the body so strong and elastic. Nothing gives better presence of mind and nimbleness; nothing steels the will power and freshens the mind as cross-country skiing. This is something that develops not only the body but also the soul – it has a far deeper meaning for people than many are aware.”
After watching a short Dunhill video about Lee Jackson’s life as a professional biathlete not long after reading about Fridtjof’s skiing exploits, my mind was made up that I needed to try the sport for myself. While Fridtjof popped his clogs back in 1930, Lee is very much alive and currently works as a biathlon coach in Italy where he lives with his wife and young children. I was delighted when he agreed to speak to me about his biathlon career, which spanned 13 years and included representing Great Britain in two Winter Olympics and nine World Championships.
As a young lad growing up in Stockton-On-Tees, an old market town in the North East of England, the prospect of earning his crust as an elite endurance athlete never crossed Lee’s mind. In fact the thought would have seemed fanciful at the time. It was only when he joined the British Army and was sent by his regiment, the Green Howards, at the tender age of 17, to spend a winter Nordic skiing that he first became aware biathlon even existed as a sport. It did not take long for the military coaches to identify that he had a special talent for the sport. Before he knew it, Lee was on the start line in the colours of Great Britain at the World Championships in Oberhof alongside legendary biathletes like Ole Einar Bjørndalen. “I was on the start line racing at the highest level not knowing much about the sport and against incredible endurance athletes that I had never heard of”, he says.
It is not surprising that Lee had never heard of biathlon growing up; the sport has virtually no profile in Britain so I thought it would be worthwhile briefly explaining what it entails. Essentially biathlon involves cross-country skiing long distances with a rifle on your back with occasional stop offs to shoot at targets. If you miss a target, you have to ski a 150 metre penalty loop. It has its roots in survival and hunting skills practiced in the snow-covered forests of Scandinavia. Hunters would often take to skis with rifles mounted on their backs to find prey. Over time, this technique was used in military combat. A well-known story in Norway is the rescue of Prince Hakkon during the Norwegian civil war of 1209. Two soldiers carried the prince to safety by skiing from Lillehammer to Trondheim, navigating through dangerous mountain passes and forests. Ancient cave drawings in Norway attest to cross-country skiing’s long history in both hunting and military combat. It was not until the 18th century that biathlon sporting events were first held and not until 1924 that it made its Olympic debut in Chamonix.
Biathlon is not a sport for the faint hearted; it is widely regarded as the toughest endurance sport. Lee says, “pound for pound, it is a brutal sport, physically and mentally.” The cross-country skiing element requires endurance, strength, coordination and power while the shooting requires control and balance. When I was recently cross-country ski training in Austria, my coach told me that, in terms of the skill set required, there are not many other sports like biathlon. Lee agrees and says the only sport that comes close is boxing because boxers also have high levels of coordination, strength, power and endurance.
In cross country skiing and biathlon races, the agony is etched on athletes faces. It is not uncommon to see them collapse on their skis as they cross the line, and sprawl out on the snow gasping for air like a fish out of water. “People who come and try the sport for the first time are always shocked about how much pain you can be in after going 10kms”, Lee tells me. In other endurance sports like cycling, triathlon, or running, the athletes are often noticeably tired when they cross the line but rarely are they absolutely destroyed. The physical challenge is what Lee loves most about the sport. He gets great satisfaction from pushing his body to the limit and in retirement misses that feeling of entering the shooting range completely exhausted and hitting all the targets.
Biathletes’ punishing training regimes are well documented so I am interested to talk to Lee about how he prepared for the Sochi Olympics. He says he meticulously put together a four-year plan for the Olympics; two years of high volume low intensity training followed by two years of high intensity low volume training. “A well-structured plan is key for any biathlete”, Lee explains. “It not only gives them a guideline to work to, it also makes it easy to get back on track if things start to go wrong.” The quality of your training is also crucial. Anyone can train for hours on end; it is the content and execution that matters most. For instance focused training for an hour is better than spending six hours going through the motions. At the height of his training cycle Lee would train for about 5 hours a day; in the summer this would involve roller skiing, cycling, weight training and hiking while in the winter it would involve specific cross country skiing and shooting training.
I have always wondered how biathletes are able to lower their heart rates as they ski into the rifle range and prepare for their shot. As you can imagine, when a biathlete enters the range, they are panting heavily from the cross-country skiing and the rise and fall of the chest has the potential to move the rifle huge amounts. So how do they manage to slow their heart rate down so they can hold the rifle steady? It turns out that it is less about slowing the heart rate and more about controlled breathing. When they are in their shooting position, they try to breath enough so that they do not black out but so little that they do not have much movement in the shot. Lee says the shooting element of biathlon eventually becomes self-logical. The majority of the time, Lee would train alone, cycling through mountains and skiing along tracks in solitude. He found it mentally beneficial because it “instills that discipline that you do not need anyone else to push you.” He would never train with music because he would always be focused on the goal for that day and music would be a distraction.
I think it is fair to say that, on the face of it, biathlon does not sound like the most exciting winter sport. After all, it does not involve the high speed of Super G or the physical collisions involved in ice hockey. However it is one of the most popular winter sports in Europe, and consistently attracts huge television audiences. The big races in Norway and Germany attract thousands of spectators. “It has this weird cult following”, Lee says. You either do not know about it and do not want to know about it or you know about it and absolutely love it. Despite biathlon’s popularity on the continent, the sport has still not taken off in the UK. Lee says the problem is twofold; we have no tradition in the sport and the only place to learn it is in Aberdeen. In Norway it is a different story; biathlon has been part of their culture for centuries and they have the climate and terrain needed to learn and train. Kids also grow up idolising endurance athletes like tour cyclist Edvald Boasson Hagen, cross country skier Petter Northug and the legendary biathlete Ole Einar Bjørndalen. As a nation, Lee says Norway puts more emphasis on sport and leisure time whereas, in the UK, people generally enjoy watching sport but are less enthusiastic about doing it them selves.
So what does the future hold for UK Biathlon? Lee says it is almost like you never know what is going to happen the following year as UK Biathlon is permanently in survival mode. You plan for a full year cycle but you do not know whether you are going to have the means to pay for a coach. He estimates that UK Biathlon needs about half a million pounds a year for the next ten years before it sees any significant improvement and gets a foothold in the sport. With a rebranding project underway he has high hopes that they will be able to find the money they need.
Throughout his biathlon career Lee always had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve and where he wanted to go. “I never looked at emulating other people, I was thinking about what I needed and how I was going to go about getting it”, he says. This single mindedness and drive helped him reach the pinnacle of the sport. The UK has never won a medal in biathlon, however with Lee Jackson bringing through the next generation, instilling in them the discipline that propelled him to the top, we may not have too much longer to wait.
All photos credited to Lee Jackson