Why the Biathlon Makes Bonds of Us All

Biathlon is the most James Bond-like of Winter Olympic sports, combining skiing and shooting, writes Brett Singer.

Lee Jin-man/AP

During the Winter Olympics, viewers can count on seeing plenty of ice dancing (Davis and White!), snow-boarding (Team USA sweeps the podium!) and downhill skiing (Bode Miller blames the snow!). But for those who wish to walk a less-trodden sporting path, here is the second in an occasional series of articles about some of the weirder Winter Olympics events.

Sport: Biathlon

What is it?

Cross-country skiing combined with target shooting. Seriously.

Weirdness factor if you’ve never seen it before: Medium.

You've seen people ski. You've seen people shoot. But you may not have seen anyone do both at the same time, except perhaps in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. Please note that in biathlon events, athletes shoot targets, not each other.

Reason to watch: The combination of skiing and shooting can make for very exciting viewing. Commentator Chad Salmela’s enthusiasm is a big help; during a race in the early days of the 2014 Winter Games, Salmela was so pumped up that his on-air partner asked, “Chad, are you gonna make it to the bronze medal, my friend?”

C'mon, what’s so exciting about Biathlon?

Only everything. On its own, cross-country ski racing requires incredible endurance; competitors often collapse when they cross the finish line. Biathletes have to do more than simply win a skiing race. They have to win a skiing race while carrying a gun on their backs, stopping periodically to load a clip into their rifle, fire at four or five targets, put the rifle back on and get back to the course, some of which is uphill and looks exhausting.

Cheez, sounds tough.

During a recent biathlon event, one of the commentators (probably Chad Salmela, who I’ve decided is the Harry Caray of biathlon) said that the biathletes’ heart rate is between 160 and 180 BPM when they stop to shoot. In any kind of shooting, recreational or military, the goal is to have as slow a heart rate as possible; this is typically accomplished through breathing exercises. Missing the target results in a penalty, turning up the pressure that much more. Even someone in amazing physical condition would probably find biathlon quite challenging.

If you’re like me and have never gone cross-country skiing nor do you have a rifle available, here’s something you can try if you want to simulate the experience. (Note: please don’t actually do this; we don’t want anyone to have a heart attack.) First run up 10 flights of stairs. Then take a wrapped straw, unwrap it, tear off a little piece of paper and make a spitball. Shoot the spitball at the wall. Do it again. And again. And again. Do it one more time. Now run down 10 flights of stairs. Just thinking about doing all that makes me want to take a nap. (Remember, we do not recommend doing the activities described, except for the nap.)

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I noticed when watching Biathlon that the guns seem to have no recoil when fired.

Steve Johnson, editor-in-chief of The Firearms Blog, was kind enough to explain this. “Technically, all guns have recoil,” Steve told me via email. “Practically, there is no noticeable rearward pushback [because] the weight of the gun slows [it] down.” Why does this matter? Because what little recoil there is “flip[s] the muzzle upwards (very slightly). So a shooter needs to move it back on target. A good shooter is holding the gun in such a way that it will be pulled back on target.” Yet another example of the skill involved to be a successful biathlete.

A brief history of Biathlon, or “Why skiing and shooting?”

Biathlon started out not as a sport but as a Scandinavian survival skill, with hunters strapping rifles to their backs and skiing around in search of something to shoot for dinner. Some sources claim that the practice began much earlier; cave drawings from thousands of years ago suggest that early man once hunted game on skis using spears. In 1767, the Swedish and Norwegian military held a biathlon-like race called military patrol as a kind of training exercise. It was very different from modern biathlon, involving teams of four carrying heavy backpacks, with the team leader wielding a pistol instead of a rifle.

A brief history of Biathlon at the Winter Olympics

Military patrol was an Olympic event just once, in 1924. The 1960 Winter Games featured one men-only 20km individual event. The sport gradually grew; in the 1992 Winter Games there were 6 biathlon events, 3 for women and 3 for men.

There are 11 biathlon events in the 2014 Winter Olympics: 5 each for men and women, and the brand-new biathlon mixed relay, a sport that already enjoys great popularity in Europe. There are a lot of immature and impolite jokes to be made about this fact but let’s not go there. OK, just one—“Biathlon mixed relay? Oh, beHAVE. Yeah, baby! Yeah!” Here are descriptions of the various biathlon events taking place in Sochi this year.

Sprint: Athletes run around trying to get a cellphone signal. Just kidding. The sprint event is a cross-country race (10km men’s, 7.5km women’s) with two shooting stops (one standing and one prone); five targets (and bullets) per stop. If you miss you have to hit the 150m penalty loop, or as I like to call it, the Dunce Lap. The results of the sprint matter; only the top 60 finishers qualify for the next event, pursuit.

Pursuit: The women’s race is 10km, the men’s is 12.5km. There are four shooting stops—two standing, two prone—with five targets per stop. The penalty for a miss is the same as in the sprint (Dunce Lap). Athletes’ starts are staggered based on how they finish in the sprint event.

Individual: Considered the “classic biathlon race”, the individual event is 15km for women and 20km for men. Like the pursuit, there are four stops for shooting, but in lieu of a Dunce Lap each miss adds a full minute to your total time.

Relay: Teams of four compete in a four-part race, 4x7.5km (30km total) for men and 4x6km (24km total) for women. There are two shooting stops per athlete, and you get eight bullets (three more than usual) to hit five targets—but the extras must be loaded one at a time. Penalty for missing is the 150m Dunce Lap.

Mass start: Same as the individual event, but everybody starts at once. Races are 12.5km for women, 15km for men, 4 shooting stops, 5 targets, Dunce Lap penalty for missed targets.

Mixed relay: Teams of four—2 women, 2 men. The women’s race is 6km, the men’s is 7.5km. There are two shooting stops, one prone, one standing, Dunce Lap penalty for misses.

Why should you care about Biathlon?

Team USA has never medaled in Olympic biathlon, but Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey have a shot (pun intended) of bringing home some hardware this year for the red white and blue.

Another good storyline is Team Norway’s Ole Einar Bjørndalen. At 40 years old, Bjørndalen has a chance to win his 13th Olympic medal. If he does, he will be the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time. He came close in the 12.5km pursuit, missing the podium by less than 2 seconds. He has three more opportunities in Sochi to break the record, starting with this weekend’s Men’s 15km Mass Start.

Things to say if you need to sound smart in polite company:

Team USA’s Tracy Barnes gave up her spot in the biathlon to her twin sister Lanny, although they could just be messing with us since they look so much alike. Lanny is five minutes older than Tracy.

Biathlon had a recent doping scandal.

The word biathlon stems from the Greek word for two contests.

25-year-old French biathlete Martin Fourcade in on fire, or enflammé. He’s won two gold medals already.

They have shooting events in the Summer Olympics as well, but they aren’t as popular.

Bonus links

Time Magazine took a camera crew to check out Team USA’s biathlon training regimen, focusing mostly on Team USA’s Tim Burke. The training regimen is so grueling, they eat 5,000 calories a day.

The Firearms Blog has a good article about the type of gun they use in biathlon.

Upcoming Biathlon Events

Sunday, 2/16, 10am EST: Men’s Mass StartMonday, 2/17, 10am EST: Women’s Mass StartWednesday, 2/19, 9:30am EST: Mixed RelayFriday 2/21, 9:30am EST: Women’s RelaySaturday 2/22, 9:30am EST: Men’s Relay