With the 2010 Games underway in Vancouver, we figured our readers might enjoy a primer on the only shooting sport of the Winter Olympics. That's why in January of last year we sent photographer and Fly Talk blogger Tim Romano to capture an inside look at the Colorado state championship Biathlon finals, and use it to write up an overview. Here's what he found. Biathlon, which combines Nordic skiing and rifle shooting, has it roots, not surprisingly, in Scandinavia and Finland. These date to Neolithic times -- there are rock paintings in Norway that show hunters sliding along the snow on wooden timbers, carrying bows and arrows. By the 1500s, skiing had become an important skill for soldiers in Scandinavia and Russia, and by the 19th century, Germany, Austria and Switzerland also had soldiers patrolling their borders with skis on their feet and guns on their backs.
The first known biathlon competition took place in 1767 between two groups of soldiers from Sweden and Norway on a border that both were guarding. These groups were called “ski-runner companies” and the soldiers organized the event as a competition and a training exercise. The sport first gained Olympic recognition in 1924 but was not officially included until the 1960 games. In its early years most competitions used high-power centerfire rifles, including the .30-06, but in 1978 the sport adopted the .22LR rimfire as its standard cartridge.
From Wikipedia: “A biathlon competition consists of a race in which contestants ski around a cross-country track, and where the total distance is broken up by either two or four shooting rounds, half in prone position, the other half standing. Depending on the shooting performance, extra distance or time is added to the contestant’s total running distance/time. As in most races, the contestant with the shortest total time wins. For each shooting round, the biathlete must hit five targets; each missed target must be “atoned for” in one of three ways, depending on the competition format: 1. by skiing around a 150 metres (490 ft) penalty loop, typically taking 20-30 seconds for top-level biathletes to complete (running time depending on weather/snow conditions),
2. by having one minute added to a skier’s total time, or
3. by having to use an “extra cartridge” (placed at the shooting range) to finish off the target; only three such “extras” are available for each round, and a penalty loop must be made for each of the targets left standing.
Before the race starts all competitors zero in their rifles on paper targets. These targets are the same size as the metal targets that will be used in the race. The inner circle is the target for shooters in the prone position, the outside circle is the target for the off-hand position.
After the zeroing process, the range is closed and competitors gather their paper targets and double-check their sights. Racers want to be very sure of the gun’s accuracy, because if you miss any targets during the race the penalty comes in the form of extra laps in the penalty loop.
Both women and men compete in biathlon. Although they don’t race against each other, both sexes can be on the course at the same time (this is not true of Olympic competitions). Starting times are staggered to spread the racers out amongst the course.
One of the coolest things about most biathlon competitions is that there is no minimum age to participate. The competitor needs to be able to ski properly, navigate the course by themselves and be trained in gun safety.
Kids younger than 13 must shoot pellet guns rather than .22s, and all youth under 17 must ski without their rifles, leaving them at the range for safety reasons.
Distances in biathlon range between 20 kilometers and 2.4 kilometers depending on the type of race and the sex and age of the skier. Terrain varies but generally includes both sustained climbs and fast downhill sections.
Shooting a gun from fifty meters at a target the size of a silver dollar can be hard in the best conditions. Add in blowing snow and a pumping heart rate and hitting that target becomes quite a bit more difficult.
Needless to say, in a physically demanding sport such as biathlon, fitness is imperative. Lowering your heart rate quickly once you enter the shooting range is one key to getting off a good round of shots. An elite trained athlete can do this in as little as 20 seconds; an average person might need 5 minutes or more.
I spent the majority of the day as a spectator. But by the end, I had to give it a try. I asked the guys in charge if they would be kind enough to give me a few pointers. They obliged and the next thing I knew I was running windsprints to get my heart rate up (my lack of skills on the skis wouldn’t have produced a high enough heart rate). With a little beginner’s luck on my side, I managed to hit a few of the larger targets. Not a chance with the smaller ones. Anyone can learn to shoot. Anyone can learn to ski. It’s the combination that makes the biathlon so challenging.