6 Things You Didn’t Know About the Biathlon

Perhaps you’ve heard of the biathlon–the combination ski/shooting event in the winter Olympics. In America, the biathlon has never gained much popularity (some people think it’s an abridged version of the triathlon), but in Europe it’s one of the most popular sports on television (actually the most popular winter sport in Germany). With the Winter Olympics rapidly approaching, it seemed like a good time to compile some wild facts about this unique sport.

The Rules
Unlike football, the rules for the biathlon are straightforward. Biathletes race around a track or straight cross country and stop every 5 kilometers to shoot at small targets. Individual routes are usually twelve miles long and each target is set 164 feet (50 m) away from the shooter. For every shot that doesn’t hit the target, the biathlete has to complete a penalty loop of 150m or have an minute of time added to their score. At this year’s Olympics, biathletes are expected to use over 10,000 bullets. The fastest racer wins, which means every second counts, including the 5-7 seconds it takes to load each bullet into the rifle.

Rifle (and Ski) Clubs
Although researchers have found 4000-year old petroglyphs of human hunting animals on skis, the modern biathlon dates back to Norway and the formation of the Tyrsil Rifle and Ski Clubs. Designed to promote national defense at a local level, these clubs were formed in 1861. Even America saw the benefits of combing skiing and shooting: in WWII, the 10th Mountain Division used these skills while fighting overseas.

War and the Olympics
The biathlon made its Olympic debut in Chamonix, France, in 1924, but it was removed in 1948, due to backlash from WWII. It wasn’t until 1968 that the sport returned to the Olympics, although it remained a male-only event for 24 more years. In 1992, women were finally allowed to compete in the biathlon, which has several events, including sprint, individual, and relay.

Magnar Solberg
Solberg was not a fast skier, but rather than develop that skill, his coach implemented a serious training regimen for shooting–he had Solberg lay on an anthill while shooting. Imagine trying to shoot at small targets while ants crawl across your arms and your face. For Solberg, the training paid off–he hit all twenty of the targets in his event at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics and won the gold medal.

Rifle Type
Originally, biathletes used high-powered military rifles, but over time the sport’s governing bodies standardized the gun requirements, eventually settling on a .22 caliber rifle. The rifle must weigh at least 7.7 pounds and is carried in a special backpack. In non-official events, participants use a variety of firearms, including pistols.

When to Shoot
Shooting at a small target always presents some challenges, but shooting at a small target after sprinting on skis…that really elevates the difficulty. Intuition suggests that biathletes would want to take a few seconds to calm their heart rate before shooting, but this makes it harder to take a clean shot. As the athlete’s heart rate slows, their pulse gets stronger, which means the heart beat can actually effect the shooter’s aim (and it wastes precious time). To prevent this from happening, biathletes try to shoot as soon as they get into the range. To keep their heart rate in check, they slow their ski speed prior to arriving at the range. Like many Olympians, biathletes train in high elevation locations to prevent shortness of breath during races.