Germany’s Golden Knitter

Magdalena Neuner

Germany's Magdalena Neuner won her second gold medal of the 2010 Games on Sunday. (AFP)

WHISTLER, British Columbia — The person most excited to hear that my next Olympics post involved cross country skiing and knitting was my mother. We’re Nordic people from Wisconsin, of mostly Norwegian descent, and she informed me — while I was standing around at the biathlon course after the women’s 12.5k Mass Start — that she had both cross country skied and knitted this weekend, although not simultaneously. “You should probably be a big fan of the German biathlete who just won gold, Magdalena Neuner,” I told her. “She’s doing TV interviews right now with her rifle still slung over her shoulder, she’s the fastest skier here … and she has her own knitting Web site.”

“Then I guess she would be my hero,” my mom said, and then she got off the phone to Google Neuner’s site — magdalena-strickt.de, which essentially means magdalena-knits — and see if she could understand the knitting patterns in German. She hadn’t heard of Neuner until Sunday.

Magdalena Neuner

Neuner is the woman biathlete to win multiple individual golds in an Olympics. (Luke Winn/SI)

Not many Americans know who Neuner is. There aren’t any great American biathletes, so the events get limited coverage on NBC. But in Germany, it’s the third most popular sport after soccer and Formula One racing, and 7.68 million people watched Neuner win gold in the women’s 10k pursuit on Tuesday, setting a new record there for an Olympic viewing audience. Neuner also won a silver medal in the 7.5k pursuit on Feb. 13, and a second gold on Sunday, establishing herself as Germany’s biggest star of these games, and the country’s most famous female athlete.

The Nos. 1 and 2 most famous female athletes in the U.S. are tennis’ Serena Williams and IndyCar’s Danica Patrick, who’ve both had sporting success and been willing to market themselves as sex symbols. They’ve posed for SI’s swimsuit issue; Williams has worn risqué outfits on the court; and Patrick appeared in a Super Bowl ad on a massage table.

The 23-year-old Neuner is a six-time world champion and millionaire who also happens to be very attractive, but is marketed in the most wholesome of ways. She endorses knitting products by posing in front of them with her biathlon rifle, as in the image below:

Magdalena Neuner

(magdalena-strickt.de/)

The money quote in her athlete bio page is, “For me, there’s nothing better than curling up in my favorite blanket on a cloudy or rainy day and just knit. Especially in front of the fireplace. Knitting not only relaxes me, it also brings a feeling of being at home.” When not knitting, she said she enjoys playing the harp. Her most risqué thing on the Internet is either a YouTube of a photo shoot that might as well be for a J. Crew catalogue, or a YouTube in which she dismisses her invitation to pose in German Playboy in 2007 by saying, “I should do other things.”

She’s refreshingly of a different breed — and on a different level of stardom — than the four German Summer Olympians who posed for that magazine in 2008. As Marina Borel, one of the German fans at Whistler Olympic Park, said: “For a sports star like Neuner, it’s just not necessary to do something like that. The time for that has passed.” Or as Linita Reiman, a fan from Muenster, put it: “Women’s sports aren’t famous all around the world, but in Germany, Neuner is a big star just for being a biathlete.”

Neuner Sign

A sign for Neuner on the biathlon course hill. (Luke Winn/SI)

It wasn’t just women who were cheering on Neuner, though — the kind of rowdy, beer-drinking men who in the U.S. would only be found at football games had come to Whistler in droves to support her and the powerhouse German biathlon team, which also included Sunday’s bronze medalist, Simone Hauswald. Four men from Ohlstadt, wearing foam hats shaped like beer steins, stood on the main spectator hill holding up a German flag that had been altered to say, “Gold-Lena.” They erupted every time she hit a target on the shooting range — her two 5-for-5 rounds on Sunday were accompanied by yell-tracks of “Hey!-Hey!-Hey!-Hey!-Hey!” — and analyzed her performance. Another fan who was standing nearby, Giw Nayebagha, said, “She’s the strongest one when it comes to running — the fastest skier. But we get heart attacks when she’s shooting, because that has been the problem.”

In an article with the subheadline, “Germany’s ‘Biathlon Beauty’ Is Quick on the Snow — but Accuracy With a Gun Is Another Story, the Wall Street Journal called Neuner’s shooting-range struggles a “soap opera in Germany, and provided a statistical breakdown:

During the past four years on the World Cup tour, Ms. Neuner’s shooting percentage — the rate at which she hits targets — has ranged from 73% to 78%, about 10 percentage points lower than the other top biathletes on the World Cup circuit. Ms. Neuner has particular problems shooting from the standing position, where the past four years she has never hit more than 65% of the targets. Lying down, her percentages range from 85% to 91%.

Neuner’s work with a sports psychologist to improve her accuracy — which had been deemed a mental issue — paid off on Sunday. She missed one target in her first shooting round and fell 20.9 seconds behind the leader, Olga Zaitseva of Russia. (Biathletes are forced to ski a penalty loop for missing a target, costing them valuable time in the race). But Neuner followed that up with perfect rounds in two of her final three trips to the range, and used her superior skiing speed to overtake Zaitseva on the final lap. The announcer at Whistler Olympic Park, an exuberant German speaking in thickly accented English, shouted commentary over the loudspeaker during the home stretch:

“And Neuner is going like it is crazy out there! She is giving it all on this last lap!”

“Zaitseva is a fighter! Zaitseva will keep on fighting!”

“Neuner is going away! Neuner is going away! The Queen of the World Cup is about to be the Queen of the Olympic Games!”

“Neuner has it in the pocket now! Only a fall will take it away!”

Neuner didn’t fall before the finish line, and became the first female biathlete to ever win multiple individual golds in the same Olympics. She never stopped smiling through a series of TV interviews. She said the experience of winning three medals in the 2010 Games had been “beyond everything.” A German reporter — there were about 15 of them following her, all men — asked her in the press conference if she might have a drink to celebrate. They were hoping she might say something improper. She smiled again, then only talked about looking forward to Tuesday’s team relay, in which the Germans are the favorites. There might be time for a drink after that race. But there will certainly be time for knitting.

  • Published On Feb. 22, 2010 by lukewinn
  • 2 Comments


    1. Mike
      2/22/10

      Good for her. We need some women’s role models and heroines out there in the sports world who don’t have to resort to selling out to sex and sleaze.


    2. Charles
      2/22/10

      She is a great champion and should really be the stars of these Games, too bad biathlon gets no recognition in the US. Aside from winning two gold and one silver medals, she also is a great human being. She voluntarily decided to sit out the tomorrows relay race, in which she would have been heavily favored to win her third gold, so her team mate Martina­ Beck who had some bad luck in Vancouver gets a chance to win a medal at what will be her­ last Olympic Games!

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