Winter Olympics: What is a Biathlon?
Exactly what is a biathlon? The Winter Olympics regularly showcase the best athletes competing in a variety of winter-oriented contests, some wildly popular, and some a little bit more obscure. The biathlon is generally more obscure, but the following paragraphs will highlight some key information about what a biathlon is, as well as the history and equipment.
Where it all began. The biathlon is named for a Greek word meaning two contests. The roots of the sport go back to the Scandinavian nations where people would ski into the rich, dense forests to hunt with rifles. Biathlon-like contests were probably held as early as the 18th century in parts of Scandinavia. The first modern biathlon competition took place in Norway in 1912 as a competition organized by the military in Oslo. This became an annual competition in Norway and consisted of a 17km course in which athletes skied and shot targets, and were penalized for each miss in the shooting portions. The event was first introduced to the Olympics in 1948 in St. Moritz as a demonstration sport and made its official debut at Squaw Valley in 1960. Women’s biathlon was incorporated in 1992 in Albertville. The biathlon is noted as a challenging event because athletes must be fit and fast ski racers but also be able to calm their breathing and be good marksmen.
The Events The Biathlon consists of five different events, each with different distances and race structures. Each race requires a combination of skiing and shooting, and shooting is often done in both standing and prone positions. Standing targets are about 4.5 inches in diamer and prone targets are less than 2 inches in diamter.
- Sprint The sprint requires men to complete a 10km loop and women to complete a 7.5km loop. Each race has two stops for shooting and each racer has five bullets to hit five targets from 50 meters. Each missed shot results in a penalty lap around a 150m loop. The top 60 finishers qualify to compete in the pursuit.
- The PursuitThe pursuit has qualifying competitors start at intervals based on their time in the sprint. Men complete a 12.5km course and women complete a 10km course. Each race requires four stops for shooting five bullets at five targets. Each missed target results in a 150m penalty loop.
- Individual Men ski 20km and women ski 15km, each stopping four times for shooting. Each missed shot results in a one-minute penalty added to the racer’s total time.
- Relay The relay consists of teams of four with each racer on the men's teams completing 7.5km legs and each racer on women's teams completing 6km legs. The relay starts as a mass start and each skier stops to shoot twice. Like many other events, missed shots result in a 150m penalty loop.
- Mass StartThis individual competition was added to the Olympics in 2006 and consists of the 30 top racers in the world, particularly previous medal winners and top racers in the World Cup circuit. Men ski 15km and women race 12.5km and they all stop four times for shooting. Each missed shot results in a 150m penalty loop.
What do they use? The biathlon requires a few more pieces of equipment than other winter sports.
- Skis and wax are carefully chosen to suite the course and conditions. Skis are generally shorter, stiffer and straighter than classic skis and a glide wax is usually used.
- Poles are long and straight to be used to generate power while skiing.
- Boots are rigid and have more ankle support than traditional ski boots.
- A rifle and magazines of five .22-calibre bullets are needed for the shooting portions of the race.
- A harness is used to carry the rifle on the back when not shooting.
- A ski suit is worn to reduce wind resistance.
What about the summer? Spin off events developed to adapt the winter sport to the summer season. Originally for biathlon athletes to stay in shape, many people now participate in these events. The non-Olympic sport uses the same format as the traditional sport, but substitutes a 5km run for the skiing.