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What is Biathlon at the Winter Olympics?

The Winter Olympics may have fewer sports than the Summer Olympics, but there are some fascinating events all the same. The biathlon is among the most-watched events in the Winter Olympics and draws hundreds of millions of television viewers. Despite its popularity, many people are relatively unfamiliar with this rather unique sport.

Want to be an expert at your Winter Olympics viewing party? Keep reading for everything you need to know about the sport of biathlon and this famed Winter Olympics event.

What is the Biathlon?

Biathlon shooter aiming at Olympics.
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The biathlon is a competitive sport that combines cross-country skiing with target shooting using a rifle. Although biathlon did not make its first appearance in the Winter Olympic Games until 1960, historians suggest that the sport has far earlier origins, likely dating back to the 1700s or earlier. It is thought that biathlon as a competitive sport evolved out of military-based skills with a competition among military personnel in 1767 along the Norway-Sweden border often cited as the premier biathlon competition.

What Does a Biathlon Consist Of?

The biathlon consists of shooting bouts and skiing portions on cross-country skis (also called Nordic skis), which are thinner and less sharp than traditional downhill skis.

Biathlon Shooting

Biathlon shooter aiming at the target.
Pixabay

There are either two or four shooting bouts in a biathlon event, typically consisting of five shots at five targets (one per target) 50 meters away. The shooting bouts may occur from either a standing position or prone (lying on the stomach) position, and the athlete must keep their skis on. In the standing position, only the athlete’s hands, shoulder, adjacent breast, and cheek are permitted to be in contact with the rifle. When shooting in the prone position, the rifle is only permitted to be in contact with the biathlete’s hands, shoulder, and cheek.

One of the main challenges of the biathlon is switching between the aerobically-demanding skiing with the focus, control, and calm needed to accurately shoot a rifle. Athletes want to keep their heart rate up while having the control and precision needed to be spot-on with their aim.

Biathletes must also be able to reload their rifle quickly, as it greatly impacts their speed and overall performance. Most biathlon rifles use a straight-pull action, wherein the athlete simply loads a clip into their rifle, then simultaneously pulls with the index finger and pushes forward with the thumb to load the chamber. However, in relays, after the five bullets, if additional ammunition is needed, the three buckets must be hand loaded.

The biathlon targets are quite small — 115 millimeters (4.53 inches) for standing shooting bouts and just 45 millimeters (1.77 inches) for prone shooting bouts.

Athletes who miss a target are penalized by either having to ski a penalty lap or by the automatic addition of time to their finish time, depending on the event.

Biathlon Skiing

Biathlon olympic skiier surrounded by a crowd.
Pixabay

The skiing portion of the biathlon is unique relative to standard cross-country ski events in the Winter Olympics in that biathletes can choose either the classic cross-country ski style or freestyle skiing (skating technique), but freestyle is significantly faster, so nearly all competitors choose that option. The only exception is that for the relay events, the first athlete must use the classical cross-country skiing technique for the first 100 meters. After that point, they are free to ski however they choose.

Except for in the final 100 meters of a race, athletes must notify the skier in front of them that they intend to pass so that the overtaken can move to the side of the trail even if there is room for the two athletes to be side by side.

The rifle is carried on the athlete’s back during the skiing portions of the biathlon.

In mass start events, the first athlete to cross the finish line wins. In interval start biathlon events, however, athletes are ranked after the event based on their finish time plus any time penalties for missing targets. The fastest total time wins, though it is possible for athletes to tie.

Biathlon Events

Biathlon skiier in the Olympics.
Pixabay

Within the sport of biathlon, the Winter Olympics features six different categories of events: Individual, Sprint, Pursuit, Relay, Mixed Relay, and Mass Start. There are 11 total biathlon events in the Winter Olympics because there is a men’s and women’s race for each category except for mixed, which has a single event made of relay teams composed of four athletes each (two men and two women).

Individual

This race takes place with each athlete racing individually against the clock with the final results ranked at the end of the event.

  • Distance: 20k men, 15k women
  • Start: Interval
  • Shooting Bouts: Four total, prone, then standing, then prone, then standing, all of which have five rounds.
  • Penalty for Missing Targets: 1 minute added to finish time for each missed target.

Sprint

This race is essentially half the Individual race with a slightly different penalty. Again, each athlete races individually against the clock with the final results ranked at the end of the event.

  • Distance: 10k men, 7.5k women
  • Start: Interval
  • Shooting Bouts: Two total, prone, then standing, both of which have five rounds.
  • Penalty for Missing Targets: One 150-meter ski lap minute for each missed target.

Pursuit

This race is a “chase” in that the Gold Medal winners of the Individual and Sprint events get to start first, and then the other athletes are released from the start pen in intervals based on their finish positions in the other races. Thus, they must chase down the leaders.

  • Distance: 12.5k men, 10k women
  • Start: Interval
  • Shooting Bouts: Four total, prone, then prone, then standing, then standing, all of which have five rounds.
  • Penalty for Missing Targets: One 150-meter ski lap minute for each missed target.

Mass Start

As the name describes, all biathletes in the event (usually more than 30) start together.

  • Distance: 15k men, 12.5k women
  • Start: Mass start
  • Shooting Bouts: Four total: prone, then prone, then standing, then standing, all of which have five rounds.
  • Penalty for Missing Targets: One 150-meter ski lap minute for each missed target.

Biathlon Events in the 2022 Beijing Olympics

There are 11 biathlon events in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China:

  • Mixed Relay (Feb. 5)
  • Women’s 15km Individual (Feb. 7)
  • Men’s 20km Individual (Feb. 8)
  • Women’s 7.5km Sprint (Feb. 11)
  • Men’s 10km Sprint (Feb. 12)
  • Women’s 10km Pursuit (Feb. 13)
  • Men’s 12.5km Pursuit (Feb. 13)
  • Men’s 4×7.5km Relay (Feb. 15)
  • Women’s 4x6km Relay (Feb. 16)
  • Men’s 15km Mass Start (Feb. 18)
  • Women’s 12.5km Mass Start (Feb.19)

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