On the Sideline: Biathlon

When most people think of the Winter Olympics, the first things that usually come to mind are probably bobsledding, ice-skating, hockey and maybe even curling. However, there is another, much less-known sport that has a long and proud history in the Olympics: biathlon.

Biathlon is a combination of cross-country skiing and target shooting. Competitors ski several laps around a track, stopping at intervals for the shooting rounds. Targets are shot at from a distance of 50 meters.

There are three main pieces of equipment in biathlon competition: skis, poles and the rifle. Small-caliber target rifles, usually chambered in .22 rim fire, are operated using either a bolt- or straight-pull action. Each rifle holds a five-round magazine. The total weight of the biathlete’s rifle and ammunition must be at least 3.5 kilograms.

The International Biathlon Union recognizes five main styles of biathlon competition: individual, sprint, pursuit, mass start and relay. In the individual competition, the biathletes ski 20 km over five laps and have four shooting rounds. For each miss during shooting rounds, a one-minute penalty is added to the time. The biathlete with the best time is the winner.

Sprint competitions have the biathletes skiing 10 km over three laps with two shooting rounds. For each miss while shooting, the biathlete must ski around a 150-meter penalty lap. Again, the biathlete with the best time wins the sprint.

In the pursuit race, the biathletes begin the pursuit individually, with their starting intervals determined by their finish times in a previous biathlon. The course’s distance is 12.5 km over five laps with four shooting rounds. Each miss earns a penalty lap. The first biathlete across the finish line wins. The mass start competition is almost identical to pursuit except that all the biathletes start the race at the same time.

Relays are run with teams of four biathletes who each ski legs of 7.5 km. There are two shooting rounds. Unlike the previous competitions, each competitor has eight shots per round, although the last three must be manually loaded into the rifle’s chamber after each shot. Any targets missed will result in a 150m penalty lap.

While biathlon is almost unknown in the U.S., it is popular in several European countries, especially Norway, Switzerland, Sweden and Russia. A biathlon competition was briefly featured in the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.

If there’s a sport you would like to see featured or if you have questions, please email jmarcus@eastern.edu.

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