It just doesn’t feel right. Cross-country skiing and shooting? The two disciplines on their own require superhuman endurance and pinpoint focus. Cultivating both to Olympic-caliber levels is a tall order, but when they come together by virtue of world-class athletes, the results are fascinating, if not thrilling.
Amidst the onslaught of new-wave events such as snowboarding and freestyle skiing, the fact that biathlon — rooted in ancient Northern European hunting practices — has survived all the way to 2014 is no small feat. But it has been an uninterrupted part of the Winter Olympic program since 1960 and is an important staple of the Winter Games.
Appropriately, the sport has been dominated by European nations. Including their time competing as two seperate countries (East and West), Germany leads the pack with 59 total medals, 20 gold. Norway, Russia/U.S.S.R., France and Sweden round out the top five, while Canada is the only non-European nation to have ever taken home biathlon hardware.
Although there are five different biathlon events for men and women in Olympic competition, each contains intervals of cross-country skiing and .22-caliber rifle shooting from a prone or standing position.
Individual racers start in 30-second intervals and ski five loops with four bouts of shooting five targets. The first and third bouts are from prone position and the second and fourth are from standing position. An athlete receives a one-minute penalty added to their race time for each target he or she misses, and the winners are the three racers who complete the race in the shortest time.
Sprint competitors start in half-minute intervals with the goal of going from start to finish in the shortest time. The race consists of three ski loops with two bouts of shooting. Instead of added time, the penalty for missing a target in the sprint is a 150-meter loop.
The pursuit starts with 60 competitors, but each athlete is not guaranteed to finish (more on that soon). Start time and intervals are based on the results on the sprint: The winner starts first and the other 59 follow sequentially based on their place and time from the sprint.
Pursuit consists of five loops with four bouts of shooting interspersed. The penalty is the same as the sprint but with an added dimension of danger: If a competitor is lapped, they must withdraw from the race before reaching their next bout. Unlike the prior two events, the pursuit is a race to the finish.
Another race to the finish, the relay consists of four-person teams. Each team starts simultaneously, and each member must ski three loops with bouts of prone and standing shooting interspersed before tagging in the next competitor in the handover zone. Each competitor is allowed to load three more rounds if they haven’t hit all the targets after the first five. The familiar 150-meter-loop penalty is enacted for each target that hasn’t been hit after eight rounds.
Finally, the mass start is a marathon-style event, where 30 racers start simultaneously. The race involves five loops with four bouts of shooting. Like the pursuit, competitors are forced to withdraw if they are lapped, and face the 150-meter-loop penalty for each target they miss — and only have five rounds to hit five targets. The first competitor to finish is the winner.
The best thing about Olympic biathlon? Each race is a medal event. There are no heats or warm-ups, just athletes ready to lay it all on the line for one fleeting race. You don’t need any more reasons to get behind biathlon this February, but if you’re having trouble, just take a 150-meter penalty lap and try again.