Nahlah Ayed - Tuesday Feb. 11, 2014 19:13 ET

Russia's Olympic fans have their particular tastes – like biathlon

Biathlon more popular than hockey: poll

Russian biathlon fans
Russian fans are embracing biathlon as one of their favourite events in Sochi. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Asked recently why so many seats were empty at Olympic events, a Russian official raised eyebrows by blaming the "Russian mentality."

Alexandra Kosterina, of the Games' organizing committee, tried to explain.
"Russians like to come to the event not prior, but as close as possible," she offered.

Maybe. But an alternative, simpler theory is now emerging: If Russians love a sport, they will come. Even hours early if need be.

And they will go to great lengths to do it. Here's the evidence.

Getting to one mountain venue from Sochi requires a 40-minute drive, a 10-minute, hair-raising gondola ride through the mountains, a spin up a winding road in a van and finally, a chilly, short trek through a delirious crowd before settling into a stadium flooded with artificial light.

And yet thousands of people — men, women and children, of all ages — did just that Monday, some coming from as far as Moscow and tiny towns even Russians have never heard of.

All for the love of biathlon.

What's more, many of them arrived hours before the start time.

More popular than hockey?

Forget what you think you know about Russians and sport. They may be a permanently hockey-crazed nation, like Canada, but here's something you probably didn't know: according to polls, biathlon may be even more popular than hockey right now.

Anecdotally, that is apparent even on the streets. Ask teenage girls, with faces painted in the Russian red white and blue, what sports and athletes they favour, and invariably you'll hear three things: hockey, figure skater Evgeny Plyushchenko and biathlon.

'Ski and shoot is a good mix'

Biathlon — that seemingly incongruous mix between cross-country skiing and shooting— barely made a blip in Russia a decade ago.

But because it covers long distances, it became a quintessential TV sport that appeared often on Russian television, which helped popularize it.

Add in the story-telling skills of one biathlon commentator, Dmitry Guberniev, and the athletes become empathetic characters — more down to Earth than highly paid hockey and soccer players — that fans follow closely.

"Biathlon is like big 'Sex in the City,'" said Guberniev in an interview with CBC. "I'm certain that Vladimir Putin is a big fan. There are real heroes that Russians care about."

"Biathlon becomes sport with real people … with [their] problems, with [their] scandals … it becomes like a soap opera," says Dmitry Egorov, a sports journalist for Sovietsky Sport newspaper who covers biathlon.

Combine that with two of Russia's passions, skiing and shooting, and you have an instant hit.

"Ski and shoot is a good mix, it's a really good mix," he said in an interview at the venue where dozens of Russian journalists, cognizant of the sport's popularity, had relocated for the duration of the events.

"All Russia – football fans, hockey fans, teachers, doctors, moms, housewives, their husbands, all of them watch biathlon."

And so they come. All the way up the mountains where some of the athletes are delivering – Russia's already grabbed silver in the women's sprint.

And the stands are packed.

Hockey still big draw

The stands will no doubt also be packed when Russia's other beloved sports get under way.

Anyone still concerned about attendance figures at Sochi best reserve judgment until the hockey games start in earnest. And until Evgeny Plyushchenko, arguably Russia's favourite athlete, is back on the ice.

At 31, Plyushchenko is in the twilight of his career, having made an unprecedented comeback despite injuries and repeated surgery.

Earlier this week, he delivered a solid but cautious performance to tango music, which, along with a stack of stunning performances added up to a coveted gold in the team skating for Russia.

At the conclusion of his piece, the crowd discarded any remaining timidity: Oo-rah Rou-see-ya. Hurray Russia.

In the past couple of days, the Russian "mentality," it seems, has shifted from humble host to hometown proud.

So the hottest ticket going at the moment, is for Plyushchenko's next performance on Thursday in the men's short program. For the moment, he's slated to skate 7th.

That it may be one of his very last Olympic performances, makes it, for many Russians, simply unmissable.

But they will also come just for the figure skating, still a favourite Russian sport in which the country's athletes have almost always managed to bring home a gold (except at Vancouver in 2012).

After Plyushchenko, the fans will no doubt come for 15-year-old prodigy Yulia Lipnitskaya, who wowed the crowds with a moving performance earlier this week that helped clinch the team skate gold.

And when those stars appear on the ice, the crowds will cheer again. Oo-rah Rou-see-ya. And the frenzied flag-wavers will go wild, jammed shoulder to shoulder.

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