7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Biathlon (But Were Afraid to Ask)

The biathlon, more so than curling or synchronized swimming, is most likely to elicit a What-the-hell!?-I-didn’t-know-that-was-an-Olympic-sport type of reaction. It’s certainly a strange in the absurdly comical way that it mashes up two of the most different sports you can think of: skiing and shooting a gun. If a triathlon tries an athlete’s endurance across several sports, and if the decathlon determines who on the field possesses the greatest breadth of athletic skills, then what does the act of shooting a target with a gun while on skis measure?

There are Historical Reasons to Carry a Rifle While Skiing
The biathlon wasn’t created by pulling two sports out of a hat. It actually derives from a long tradition of hunting and military training. In the snowy areas of the world — where skis are used more for transportation than recreation — shooting while on skis was a necessary skill to master. Nordic hunters would track game across the countryside, rifle on their back. Soldiers training for winter combat would drill on skis and play war games, an activity known as military patrol. Teams from different militaries in Northern Europe would compete against one another in this game, which originally was a mixture of orienteering, ski racing, shooting and equestrian skills. The first such competition probably took place around 1767.

It was Military Patrol that first entered the Winter Olympics  as a military exhibition, in 1924 in Chamonix. This eventually morphed into biathlon, which was introduced as an official Olympic event in 1960.

It Take Quite a Bit of Skill
Any sport worth its salt tests its athletes in some unique way. Biathlon is no different, although it is perhaps unique in the way in which nerves play a role in the competition. That is, a biathlete’s success comes from the extent to which she can master her nerves (on top of the athleticism required for skiing.)

Imagine traveling cross country on your skis, trying to go faster than your opponents — an activity complex enough to warrant its own olympic event. You’ve skied almost to exhaustion when you reach your target. Now you must shoulder your rifle and line up your shot. This is a time sensitive  activity — you want to reach the finish line in a time that’s faster than your opponents. But if you take a hasty shot and miss — the targets generally are black and turn white when struck — then your final time will suffer a penalty, or else you’ll be forced to complete a 15 meter penalty lap (depending on what type of competition it is.)

This is thrill of the biathlon. One biathlete described the abrupt transition between the sport’s two disciplines for the Times: “Your chest is rising and falling as you shoot the rifle. You’re trying to gain control of your breathing and quiet your body so you can hit the target… It’s very difficult.”

Biathlon is Becoming More Popular In America
The aforementioned Times article was about the increasing popularity of biathlon in America. But that’s not saying much: There are only 800 registered biathletes in the states, spread over 20 biathlon clubs. Much of the biathlon world remains in Europe, where the sport originated.

The US Has Never Won a Biathlon Medal
That’s for both the Winter Olympics and the Biathlon World Cup. And neither has the UK. In fact, the only country outside of continental Europe to have won a biathlon medal is Canada. US biathletes — get on it in 2014!

It seems that the only people who win biathlon medals are from Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and Slavic countries.

One Biathlete From Costa Rica Competed in the 1984 Winter Olympics
So far, Hernán Carazo is the only biathlete from Costa Rica to have competed in the olympics. (Argentina, Costa Rica, Chile and Guam have also sent a few biathletes to the winter olympics.) It’s no surprise that Carazo didn’t earn a medal.

I imagine Carazo’s odyssey to the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics was not unlike that of the Jamaica’s only bobsled team, as depicted in the movie Cool Runnings. This is how things probably went down: A washed-up and cynical, though secretly compassionate, Norwegian biathlon coach, while vacationing in Costa Rica, spots an athletic young man roller skating with a rifle strapped to his back. The young man stops on a dime, shoulders his rifle and fires. The shot hits its mark, killing a small bird that will serve as dinner to his hungry family. Something stirs in the Norwegian coach, a passion long since dormant. Maybe this kid has what it takes, he thinks…

But the kid is from Costa Rica! There’s no snow here, let alone skis! The coach and the kid push on through the difficulties, braving the backlash from the biathlon establishment. Even though the coach swore never to coach biathlon again (after a fatal accident involving a malfunctioning rifle and his biathlon prodigy son) he’s happy for the first time in years. Miraculously, the Costa Rican wins a spot to compete at the Sarajevo Olympics, to the slack-jawed amazement of everyone at the olympic trials (but a Costa Rican has never competed in the biathlon before!) The coach and his young disciple each learn from the other valuable lessons about life.

The real Carazo didn’t finish his 10km sprint, but managed to beat out three of his competitors in the 20km, finishing 61st out of 64.

There Are Many Biathlon Variations

Ole Einar Bjørndalen is a Biathlon God
Somewhere in the world, a person in a biathlon-crazy land is saying, You don’t know who Michael Jordan is? He’s the Bjørndalenof basketball!

Ole Einar Bjørndalen has the second most Winter Olympic medals of all time, with six golds and 11 total (behind the 12 medals of his countryman, Bjørn Dæhlie, the Bjørndalen of cross country skiing) and has a staggering 18 Biathlon World Championship gold medals.

His dominance derives from his prodigious skiing skills, rather than his shooting ability. According to Wikipedia, “Bjørndalen’s general tactic has been to skate as hard and as fast as possible from the start of the race, and build up a large lead, so that he is able to afford a miss in the shooting (a penalty lap takes roughly 23 seconds), and still be in the top.”

Bjørndalen’s such a good skier that he has also won a cross country world cup race, becoming the first to win a world cup ski race and a world cup biathlon event.

His most dominant performance was perhaps in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, where he swept all the male biathlon events, winning four gold medals (a fifth biathlon event was added in 2006.) For this impressive feat, a bronze statue of his likeness was created in his hometown of Simostranda, Norway.

His work ethic is prodigious, as is his commitment to his training regimen. From NBC Sports: “Even his love-life takes second place to biathlon. At the Salt Lake Games, he would only agree to meet then-girlfriend (now wife) Nathalie Santer on the street, and not in closed quarters, and public displays of affection were kept to a minimum.” (Women weaken legs!)