6 Things to Know about the Winter Biathlon

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.

Olympic Ori­gins
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 Para-Biathlon
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!