Biathlon breakdown: United States still searching for first medal

Yahoo Sports Contributor
Yahoo Sports
Lowell Bailey of the United States competes during the men’s 20 km individual competition at the biathlon World Cup in Ruhpolding, Germany, on Jan. 10, 2018. (AP)
Lowell Bailey of the United States competes during the men’s 20 km individual competition at the biathlon World Cup in Ruhpolding, Germany, on Jan. 10, 2018. (AP)

The Biathlon is largely ignored in the United States — in part because they have yet to win a medal in the history of event.

Yet the sport is one of the most popular across Europe, and one that the majority of the continent will have it’s eyes on at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea this February.

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It will be hard to miss it, too. The Biathlon will hold 12 different events on 13 of the 17 total competition days at the upcoming games.

Here’s everything you need to know about the Biathlon — and the United States’ struggles in the event — ahead of the Winter Olympics:

Military Origins

The idea behind the Biathlon is a simple one: a combination between cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. Athletes have to race around a course as fast as possible before stopping to shoot at targets that are nearly 50 meters away at different spots around the course.

While it’s not a popular one in the United States by any means, it has been around for hundreds of years.

The sport started as a simple military training exercise in Norway back in the 1700s, and it didn’t take long before troops across Scandinavia started competing against each other.

The “Military Patrol” was held at the first Winter Olympics in 1924 in Chamonix. The event resembled the modern Biathlon, except they were required to be in four-man units — or patrols — that included one officer.

Six countries took part in the initial event: Finland, France, Italy, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Switzerland. The patrols took off from the Olympic Stadium, complete a 30km course before arriving back at the stadium, where the non-officer members of the team would take part in the shooting portion of the event. For each target hit, a 30-second time bonus was gained.

The event was still very military focused. Per the official report from the 1924 games, “The course must be completed by the entire patrol, which must dress in military uniform and be equipped with arms and backpacks”

Switzerland won the gold medal in 1924 with a time of 3:56:06, followed by Finland and France.

The Military Patrol, however, was dropped from the Winter Olympics after World War II. It wasn’t reintroduced until the 1960 games in Squaw Valley, California, where they held one 20km race.

Biathlon Today

The Biathlon looks much different today than it did back in the 1924 games — or even at it’s resurrection in 1960.

Now athletes all use a standard gun for competition — a rifle with four magazines containing five shots each, .22 caliber low-recoil rounds, and a repeater, a mechanism that allows an easy and fast reload after each shot.

There are four main different types of events in the biathlon: individual, relay, mass start and pursuit.

Individual Events

Men: 20km, 10km sprint

Women: 15km , 7.5km sprint

On the longer courses — considered a traditional biathlon — athletes are competing against the clock to simply post the fastest time. They shoot four different times, twice standing and twice in the prone position. Should they miss a target, a one-minute penalty is added to their time. In the sprint events, athletes will only shoot twice — once in each position. Instead of a one-minute penalty for missed targets, athletes must ski a 150m penalty loop.

Relay Events

Men: 4×7.5km

Women: 4x6km

Mixed: 2x6km Women, 2×7.5km Men

The men’s and women’s relay events are set up in a near identical format as the individual sprint races. Athletes will shoot twice from each position, and must ski a 150m penalty for each missed target. The mixed-relay is set up the same way, with the first two legs of the race ran by the women and the final two by the men.


Men: 12.5km

Women: 10km

Athletes still shoot four times in the pursuit race, and are forced to ski a 150m penalty for each missed target. However, it’s the start that separates the pursuit race from the rest. Gold medal winners from the individual and sprint races start the course first, while the rest of the competitors are released after based on their finishing time in the individual races. They then are in pursuit of the gold medal winners, hoping to overcome the delayed start and pass the leaders on the course.

Mass Start

Men: 15km

Women: 12.5km


This race is as simple — and chaotic — as it sounds. Every athlete in this race starts at the same time, creating a simple sprint to the finish. The separation comes after athletes miss a target, forcing them to ski a 150m penalty loop.

Biathlon Leaders

Norway led the Biathlon in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, winning six different medals. Ole Einar Bjorndalen has dominated the sport on the men’s side for Norway, having won 12 total medals in the sport since his first Olympics back in 1994. He currently is the most decorated winter Olympian in the history of the games.

Darya Domracheva led the field on the women’s side in Sochi, winning the 15km, 10km pursuit and the 12.5km mass start. The 31-year-old from Belarus has won four total medals in her Olympic history, having won a bronze medal at the 2010 games — her first Olympic appearance.

Laura Dahlmeier of Germany won five different gold medals at the Biathlon World Championship last year, and is definitely one who many are expecting to dominate at the Olympics this winter.

The United States has yet to medal in the Biathlon — the only sport in the winter Olympics it has failed to place in. The closest they have come came in 1972, when the men’s relay team finished sixth. Jeremy Teela finished ninth in the 10km sprint in 2010, making him the closest male individual to medaling, and Joan Smith finished in 14th in 1994, making her the closest female individual to reach the podium.

However, New York native Lowell Bailey won the men’s 20km race at Biathlon World Championship — the first American to do so — last year, and could help end the United States’ drought in the sport in South Korea. He is one of 10 total Americans that are set to compete in the Biathlon this winter.


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