Combining Nordic skiing and rifle marksmanship, the biathlon is one of the more peculiar Winter Olympic events. The story behind the sport is an interesting one, as is the way the sport has developed into its modern-day iteration. Here’s a look at what the biathlon is really all about.
Straight Out of Norway
The biathlon is said to date back thousands of years, where it was used as a method to hunt for food. Four thousand year old rock engravings have been found in Norway, depicting hunters traveling on skis, armed with a spear to catch their dinner. Fast forward a few thousand years: the rifle eventually replaced the spear, and the biathlon became a training exercise for soldiers. This then evolved into a skill-based competition. The first official race on record took place in 1767 right by the border separating Sweden and Norway.
The sport made its Olympic debut in 1924 at the Winter Games in Chamonix, France. It stayed on the circuit until 1948. After the end of the World War II, the world no longer found the sport to be quite so palatable. Eventually, the sport made a triumphant comeback. The Swedes made the push for the sport, which was reintroduced to the Squaw Valley games in 1960. It remains an Olympic event to the present day.
A Woman’s World
It took a little longer for competitive events to recognize that women, too, bore interest in the sport. The European Cup for women was established in 1982. The event grew in popularity, eventually drawing participants from three different continents. By 1986, it was made into a World Cup. It took a little bit longer for the women’s category to make the Olympics; that didn’t happen until 1992!
What it’s All About
The biathlon is a race: he or she with the fastest time wins. The race involves racing a course on cross country skis, then stopping to complete a shooting round. The shooting round involves hitting five targets 160 feet away, and missing the target has consequences. The consequence changes depending on the competition format, but it can include time penalties or having to ski around a penalty loop.
There are multiple competition formats: the “individual” involves five laps (totalling 20 km for men, 15 km for women) and four rounds of shooting, alternating between prone (lying on the stomach) and standing. The “sprint” is a 10 km distance for men, 7.5 km for women, with three laps and two rounds of shooting. “Pursuit” involves a staggered start based on time differences at pre-qualifying races. There are also relay events with teams of four biathletes for men, women and mixed teams.
The Paralympics offer different adaptations of the biathlon for athletes with disabilities. For instance, visually impaired athletes partake in “blind biathlon”. Instead of shooting with bullets, they use a special rifle that interacts electronically with the target. The athletes wear a set of headphones and are guided by a series of beeps to find the target: the closer their aim is to the target, the faster the deeps get. Another sound will let them know if they hit or miss the target.
Who Reigns Supreme?
The biathlon is a fairly accessible sport—unlike sliding sports, it doesn’t require special tracks or facilities, and unlike alpine skiing, you don’t need a mountain to be able to train. As such, there are many competitive athletes from countries all over the world. European countries are particularly fond of the sport (France, Austria, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Ukraine and so forth), but USA and Canada hold their own in the international rankings. Athletes from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Croatia took gold medals at biathlon events in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. It really is an international sport!
Keep your eyes peeled for the events during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Guns, speed and racing—it’s almost right out of an action film!