Sochi 2014: Biathletes face giving up the Games for army life

By Ollie WilliamsBBC Olympic sports reporter
GB biathletes prepare for Sochi 2014 in Sweden

Join the Army, they said. Compete at the Olympics, they said.

Now, the show is nearly over.

No sport at the Games can match biathlon for military firepower: soldiers the world over competing in a cross country skiing contest punctuated by rounds on a rifle range. Armed forces treat places on the start line as a source of pride.

The British Army has been no exception, but now Without a fresh injection of £50,000 per year, the game is up.

After Sochi 2014, if no team is left, the soldiers skiing for Britain must prepare for life back in the regiment.

"The thought of not being able to continue in the sport is devastating to me," says Amanda Lightfoot, expected to be named as Britain's only female biathlete for the Sochi Games.

"But we're out here now to do this job and have the best season ever. It means more than anything to go out, this season, with a bang."

The reason so many soldiers compete for GB is that the Army actively supports biathlon. Its members are encouraged to aim for the top if they are good enough - and Britain will send one male and one female biathlete to Sochi 2014.

"I got involved in biathlon within 18 months of me being in the military," says Lee Jackson, the lone British biathlete to compete at Vancouver 2010.

"Slowly I was pushed towards being an elite athlete from within the military, towards this fantastic opportunity I could have to represent Great Britain at the World Championships and the Olympics."

Preparing skis for Olympic biathlon

Moreover, the Army uses biathlon as an advert, a message to potential recruits that this is not just about going to war - this lifestyle lets you play sport, and could even be your route to the Olympic Games.

"Winter sports contribute directly to military output and fighting spirit, are an essential part of decompression from operations and remain an important element of the moral component," said Martyn Allen, secretary of the Army's own winter sports association, in an email to BBC Sport.

"Some 100 Army athletes have competed in the Olympic Winter Games since the War, including 38 biathletes. Sport has always been an integral part of Army life, training and general well-being, and the Army has always supported its elite athletes in all summer and winter sports."

Now, the current crop of biathletes may need that support more than ever.

By virtue of their Army salaries - a funding luxury few other British winter hopes receive, though costs like equipment and ammunition make biathlon an expensive sport - the squad are all tied to regiments. They are expected to blend back into Army life if their team collapses.

Yet some of these soldiers have spent more than a decade as high-performance international athletes, often sacrificing their rank as a result. Viewed from the vista of a mountainous Swedish shooting range, regimental life is hard for some to contemplate.

"It's going to be particularly difficult to adapt back to being a soldier full-time," confesses 26-year-old Lightfoot, a member of the Adjutant General's Corps.

"It's not going to be impossible - the Army are going to go out of their way to try to help us - but it's going to be difficult not to get up and train every day. My body is so used to it.

"To go back to military duties... I'm a clerk, and the thought of sitting behind a desk and doing people's pay is terrifying, actually."

On-camera at their Swedish training camp, brave faces are displayed. The athletes all signed up for Army lives in the first place and know that to complain of what lies ahead will strike the wrong note. In many respects, they are lucky.

But in communal meals that evening, the atmosphere ahead of an uncertain future is grim. Lives have been invested in biathlon like any other job, and those lives may drastically change.

Jackson has been doing this long enough that his friends are biathletes and his family - a partner and child who live in Italy - came about through the sport. He knows the Army will not be posting him to Italy any time soon, but he cannot let that affect his Olympic preparations.

"After Sochi we'll start thinking about what will I do, is there still a future in the sport, and is there still a future for me?" Jackson says.

"It's been nigh-on 12 years since I've been back at work, doing 'real' work. So yeah, it would be a very harsh change, I think.

"But the Army have been very supportive over the years I've done biathlon. If I need to go back, show that gratitude and do my day job, as such, I guess I'll have to.

"There are worse things in life. I've still got employment when I finish with the sport, and financial security. I'm not sure how many people in life actually do a job that they really enjoy. Sometimes it's a means to an end."

If the squad does fold, there is one twist: Scott Dixon, a teenager with a six-time Olympian for a father, is the lone civilian member of the British squad.

The money, the team-mates, the coaching and all other resources would disappear, but self-funded Dixon is determined to become a one-man British biathlon band if he must.

"It's very sad," says the 19-year-old. "When we were originally told of the situation - that the chances are everyone [else] is going back to work - it was a very emotional moment. It had a huge impact.

"It made me realise that the likelihood of any kind of team competing at events next year is going to be very slim.

"But it's definitely not impossible. I intend to be here next year, that's for sure."

There will be a programme looking at GB's preparations for Sochi 2014 on BBC Radio 5 live from 20:30 GMT on Thursday, 9 January.