Knight questions decision to hold biathlon in frigid conditions

Wrapped in a gray blanket inside a heated green army tent, biathlete Ryan Knight ate a bowl of hot soup.

Wrapped in a gray blanket inside a heated green army tent, biathlete Ryan Knight ate a bowl of hot soup.

Sheila Serup, his coach, softly asked if he’d like to talk with reporters.

He shook his head “no” and returned to his food.

He was just too cold.

About 10 minutes later, the 19-year-old athlete is finally warm — and he’s heated about the decision to hold the 10-kilometre biathlon sprint in Monday’s frigid conditions.

“Nobody that I know of was expecting this race to happen today,” said Knight after the event, which was shortened to nine kilometres by a Games jury.

“It was up to the technical delegate on whether or not we should race. I guess, for whatever reason, we started.

“I don’t know what the exact temperature is right now, but I know with the wind-chill it’s a lot colder than minus 20 (Celsius),” he said between coughs from asthma brought on by the cold air.

“Minus 20 is supposed to be the cutoff temp.”

During his first Canada Winter Games biathlon in 2003 in minus 20 temperatures he finished the race suffering from hypothermia. (Knight has also competed as a cyclist in the Canada Summer Games).

When he arrived at the finish line on Monday — after having to ski an extra 1.5-kilometres on the penalty loop for missing all 10 shots he took with his .22 cal. rifle at the firing range — “I wasn’t all there,” said Knight.

He was immediately taken to a nearby medical tent for an evaluation and found to be OK.

Others in the tent didn’t appear to be doing so well, he said.

“There was already a couple of people already in there with hypothermia,” said Knight.

Outside, the temperature was just a fraction above the biathlon cut-off point of minus 20.99, according to Games officials at the race.

The event’s official report lists both the air and snow temperatures as minus 20.

But an Environment Canada forecast posted at the stadium entrance at the Grey Mountain biathlon track reported wind-chill temperatures could dip as low as minus 36.

A summary Environment Canada report on Tuesday about Monday’s weather detailed wind-chill temperatures that rarely went above minus 30.

One male and three female competitors failed to finish Monday’s race.

The jury’s decision to shorten the men’s event to nine kilometres and the women’s 7.5-kilometre sprint to only six kilometres was taken to reduce the amount of time athletes would be exposed to the cold, said Biathlon Canada’s executive director Joanne Thomson, who is overseeing the biathlon races for the Games.

At least four people were seen being taken into the tent after finishing the race, including one limp girl who was carried on the shoulders of two men as saliva flowed from her mouth.

Several racers collapsed at the finish line.

But there were no cases of hypothermia, said Thomson.

During the race, the cold temperatures, slow snow and gusting winds took their toll on Knight.

“By the middle of my second lap — and it’s only a three-lap course — my legs were already starting to seize up on me, and same with my arms, making the race a lot more difficult,” he said.

And don’t ask him about his prone and standing shots in the range.

“I’m quite pissed off at myself. I didn’t hit a thing today,” he said, explaining the penalty laps were doubly hard because he was already cold.

“I wasn’t all there today. It brings you down quite a bit.”

Knight finished 26th out of 36 racers with a time of 49:25.

But unlike her chilled teammate, Yukon female biathlete Jodi Gustafson was bright-eyed and happy after her race.

“It was great for me; I felt really good,” said Gustafson, 16, from Whitehorse. “I just had a lot of energy. My goals were to have fun and learn from athletes, but I surprised myself. I felt really good.”

Gustafson’s time of 36:53 saw her finish 19th out of 32 competitors.

She hit five of her 10 shots in the range.

And friends standing along the course holding signs to cheer her on helped her push through the cold, she said.

So did the three layers of clothes she wore underneath her Lycra ski suit.

Eighteen-year-old Yukon biathlete Jeremiah Kitchen did not start Monday’s race due to a chest infection.

Tuesday’s scheduled 15-kilometre men’s and 12.5-kilometre women’s individual biathlon was postponed due to cold conditions, but was later allowed to proceed.