What is Biathlon?

What is Biathlon?

You might never have heard of biathlon, but you might have possibly come across decathlons and triathlons. To put this into perspective:

  • Decathlon includes 10 events
  • Heptathlon consists of 7
  • Triathlon includes 3, and finally there is,
  • Biathlon which incorporates 2 sports, namely, cross-country skiing and shooting.

Let us go into some more detail about biathlon, by discussing the way athletes engage in this sport, its historical origin, and the types of competitions that exist. However, a little disclaimer upfront: I would like to state that I am not a biathlete myself. All the information in this article is based on my passion for watching biathlon and research that I carried out.

What Are the Basics of Biathlon?

At first glance you might be trying to understand how these two sports, namely, rifle shooting and cross-country skiing, relate to each other as they are quite different and rather contrasting, to say the least. Biathlon is basically a race whereby one will need to ski rather long distances, and while doing so, the athlete will shoot at targets set in different spots. The winning contestant will be the one who manages to make the shortest time in total, as this is after all a race. The total score is calculated in terms of the distance made, and shots. Missed shots will increase one’s total score.

Biathlon is a winter multi-disciplinary sport. Its main aim is to test the contestants’ athletic prowess. Typically one should be as calm and as precise as possible while shooting at a target. Hence, doing this while skiing is exceptionally difficult. This is what makes biathlons so unique and intriguing.

Athletes competing in biathlons will cross-country ski for long distances, which in competitions will vary for males and females. In the case of male competitors, the distance is of 20km, whereas for females it is 15km. There are different ranges, each with five targets for the biathletes to shoot at. The contestant will have only one shot at each target.

What Type of Races Exist in Biathlon?

There are five types of biathlon races, with marginally altered rules, but the main aim in all of them is one: the contestant will need to race as quickly as possible to limit the total time spent until he or she finishes the race. Simultaneously, he/she will need to focus so as to try to shoot targets and not miss. Whenever one misses a target, there will be a penalty. This will either be in the form of additional time added to the final score or else, having the contestant ski for an extra loop on the track.

Split times are taken at various points along the track, and whenever a shooting round is completed, in order to keep track of each contestant’s progress in the race. The displays set up during competitions will show the split time of the contestant who proved to be the fastest at each intermediate point. The times and respective time differences of that contestant’s closest runners-up will also be listed.

Interesting points worth noting:

  • The race’s total distance is subdivided into two or four shooting rounds. Half of them will be in prone position, whereas the other half will be half standing.
  • Most competitors choose skate skiing even though all types of cross-country skiing techniques are permissible in biathlons.
  • The rifle needs to be carried by the skier throughout the whole race.
  • Weather conditions, especially snow will have a considerable effect on contestants’ performances. Experienced biathletes typically take between 20 and 30 seconds to complete a 150-meter penalty loop.
  • Only three extra cartridges are available for every round.
  • A penalty loop will need to be done for every target that is left standing.

The Origins of Biathlon

This sport emerged from Scandinavian traditions, where many went skiing and hunting. Since in those areas precarious weather conditions are normal, hunters had to ski in order to make their way in the forests. Managing to carry a gun on your back while skiing is definitely not easy at all. In fact, this skill was considered to be highly beneficial for those who wanted to join the military, especially in northern European countries.

Later on, this skill was used in athletic competitions. Back in 1767, there were Norwegian border patrol troops who created this sort of competition. While patrolling borders they tended to get bored, and this was a good way to relieve that boredom. They thus put their best two skills to good use – they used to ski and fire their guns at targets. It was also a good form of training for them. They named it military patrol back then, but later it was termed as we know it today, the biathlon.

The first biathlon competition was recorded back in the 18th century. This took place between the Swedish and Norwegian militaries. Later in the 1924 Winter Olympics, the first demonstration of the sport was carried out. However, it took several other years for the biathlon to become recognized as an official Winter Olympic Sport as back then it was not that popular as a form of sport.

There were more demonstrations held during the 1928, 1936 and 1948 Winter Olympic Games, but the first time for this sport to be included in the Olympics was in fact later in 1960. Prior to that, in the mid-1950’s it was introduced in Swedish and Soviet winter sports. In 1958 the first Biathlon World Championship was held in Austria. The biathlon contestants used to be males only, with females being allowed in the Olympic Biathlon for the first time in 1992.

What Is the Competition Format for Biathlon?

There are 6 main competition formats in biathlon:

  1. Individual – for men it is a 20km individual race, and for women it is 15km long. One would need to shoot four times in the shooting lane, and the shots need to be in the same order; prone, then standing, then prone again, then standing again. In total there will be 20 targets. Whenever a target is missed, a one-minute penalty is added to the athlete’s total skiing time.
  2. Sprint – for men it is a 10km race, and for women it is 7.5km. The athlete needs to ski over three laps and shoot twice at every lane. One shot needs to be prone and one standing. There will be a total of 10 shots. With every target missed a penalty loop of 150 meters will be imposed before continuing the regular race. Starts are staggered at 30 seconds or one minute.
  3. Pursuit – the biathletes’ starts are separated by the time differences attained in the previous race, which is generally a sprint race. The distance is 12.5 km in the case of male athletes and 10km for females. The pursuit race is skied over 5 laps, and there are 4 shooting bouts. Two of these are prone, followed by two standing ones. Each miss leads to a penalty loop of 150 meters.
  4. Mass start – all the biathletes start the race at the same time. This race is 15km long for men and 12.5km for women. There are five laps with four bouts composed of two prone followed b two standing. The first shot is to be made in the lane that is numbered according to the athlete’s bib number, but subsequent ones can be made on a first come first served basis. For every miss, there is a penalty loop of 150 meters.
  5. Relay – each team is made up of four biathletes. Men ski for 7.5km and women for 6km. There are three laps with two shooting rounds each. In every round, the athletes will have five targets, and eight shots will be available. If after all the eight bullets are used there are misses, a penalty loop of 150m is imposed for every target that remains.
  6. Mixed relay – a team is made of two men and two women. The women do legs 1 and 2 while men do the third and fourth. For women, there are 6km whereas for the men there are 7.5km.

The Shooting

The shooting element in biathlon races is very demanding, to say the least. Biathletes will have to shoot from two different positions, namely standing and prone. In the former case, the target diameter is of 115 millimeters, whereas in the latter position it is of 45 millimeters.

In every shooting round there will be five circular targets. As a biathlon race includes several shooting stages, the contestants will need to carry extra magazines.

On modern biathlon ranges, there are self-indicating targets. Whenever they are hit, they will flip from black to white.

The Biathlon Rifle

The rifle that is used is a .22 Long Rifle, which is known for its minimal kick. It is a rather heavy rifle; the minimum weight is 3.5 kg which includes ammunition and extra magazines. Each rifle will hold 4 magazines, with 5 rounds. Most biathletes use the Anschutz 1827 Fortner model which is known for its precision even in extremely cold temperatures.

The biathlon rifle also comprises different kinds of modifications which are very helpful for biathletes, such as snow covers on both the front and back sights. When it is snowing, or should the biathlete falls while skiing, it is normal for snow to get into the sights and end up caught in there. These snow covers help to prevent this as much as possible.

Another feature is the bicep clip. This allows for better stabilization when engaging in prone shooting. This helps a great deal in shooting accurately.

Biathlon rifles also come with what is referred to as a staged trigger. Basically, the first 80% is very soft, while the remaining percentage is when the trigger goes off. This gives more control to the shooter. The rifle typically also comes with what is called the Fortner Bolt, which allows for the quick rebolt of the rifle. When the trigger is pushed, it will come back, and the athlete can quickly push it forward in order to rebolt as quickly as possible. Time is of the essence in such races, and so this feature is very advantageous.

Biathletes will look through a peep sight. Hence there is no magnification. A biathlon rifle will also have a harness to carry the rifle in. Such rifles will also have a sling on the front, as well as a standard pistol grip. The sling on the front is very useful as when the athlete is shooting in a prone position, his hand will come up against the hand stop. The sling will go around the forearm and clip into a cuff which is generally located just above the athlete’s bicep. This allows for better stabilization.

When the biathlete gets in and out of prone position, the rifle is hooked onto the sling. In this manner, a sort of tripod is created, which allows for the athlete to better hold the rifle up. On the other hand, in case of a standing position, the rifle will also be able to fit the athlete better as he will typically put his elbow onto his hip when shooting.

What Are the Main Challenges of Biathlon?

Biathlon is a demanding sport which presents various challenges to those who engage in it. First of all, it is quite challenging to manage to hold the heavy rifle steady, especially after traveling such long distances. So managing to shoot and hit the targets is very difficult and requires athletes to shoot efficiently and precisely, yet quickly.

One also needs to take into account the weather conditions, especially the effect of the wind. One would need to consider adjusting the windage knobs on the rifle. Having said that, despite this, the wind’s force and direction can change from one moment to another. Wind flags will help a bit, but one will need to be quick when taking clicks so as not to waste precious time.

Imagine the biathlete getting into position, and glancing at the wind flags. These will give him an idea of how the wind is at the moment. If the wind is blowing hard, he will need to bear in mind that this will be pushing the bullets more. Sometimes the wind is so strong that it even causes the athlete to move his position. The wind’s direction will also affect significantly. If the wind seems to be switching directions, the athlete will need to take that into account as well.

Shooting Between Heartbeats

Cross-country skiing is, needless to say, very demanding. A skier’s heart beats at roughly 90% of the maximum allowable rate, and despite that one will need to be as precise as possible while shooting. Learning to shoot while having a really high heart rate is truly hard. The best biathletes thus need to train themselves to slow down their pulse by means of concentration and breathing.

When the heart rate is really fast, one tends to be conscious of its every beat. The pounding will even be felt in the grip of the rifle in the athlete’s hand. So as a biathlete you need to learn how to control your heartbeat. Typically biathletes will get used to dropping their heart rates to about 60% of the maximum. The heart rate also drops less when one is shooting upright.

Apparently, experienced athletes use the tactic of shooting between heartbeats. This is known as the R-R interval, which is the period between the peaks of one’s heartbeat. In such a case it is an extremely short timeframe, and so there is no denying that it takes a great deal of skill and practice to master this tactic. It is also important to note that one cannot keep his or her heart rate too high up because otherwise the breathing will end up getting heavier as well, and that could be another distraction to managing to focus and shoot accurately.

Curious to Try Biathlon Yourself?

Biathlon is very popular in northern Europe in particular, but even there it is no winter sport that many people practice. Biathlon is first and foremost a professional competitive sport that you watch on TV. However, there are more and more cross-country skiing resorts offering trail courses, also in the USA. If you are curious to try Biathlon out for yourself, I recommend you as the first point of contact the website of the Colorado Biathlon Club (https://www.coloradobiathlon.org/). In the FAQ section, you will find a lot of practical information and instructions on the requirements for a training session. They also maintain a range at the Snow Mountain Ranch’s Nordic Center, near Fraser.