Biathlon is an Olympic winter sport, which combines competitive, free-technique cross-country skiing and small-bore rifle marksmanship. Several other competition forms of movement and shooting - such as ski archery, snowshoe Biathlon, running and shooting and mountain bike Biathlon - are also normally included in the general category of Biathlon.
The most popular form of the biathlon, found in the winter Olympics, is usually referred to as a competition, not a race. This is due to the fact that it is a combination of two very different competitive activities and often the fastest skier is not the winner. The biathlon is hence challenging and demanding of two, somewhat opposing skills. The cross country component requires intense physical exertion while the shooting portion of the race demands precision and careful skill. Target shooting is usually considered a leisure sport, but during the biathlon race, athletes must demonstrate the same precision while under extreme physical strain.
The History of the Biathlon
The word biathlon is from the Greek and it translates as two tests. The combination of skiing and hunting can be traced back 4000 years in Nordic countries. Petroglyphs have been found in Roedoey, Norway (3000 BC) depicting hunters on skis and written accounts of the activity can be found in the 400 BC writings of Virgil. Xenophon, Strabol, Arrian, Theophanes, Prokopius, and Acruni wrote accounts of the use of skiing in warfare and skiing regiments were active in Russia, Germany, Austria and Switzerland in more recent history. During WWII, the USSR attempted to invade Finland with a troop on skis.
The first recorded biathlon race was in 1776 near the border of Norway and Sweden. Early on its history it grew in popularity as training for defense purposes in military units in Scandinavian nations. Competitions were held at regular intervals between 1792 and 1818. The biathlon first appeared at the Olympics in 1924, in Chamonix, France, but only as a competition sport by military competitors.
In 1949, a proposal was made to the Olympic committee that the sport be opened to civilian competitors as an individual competition rather than a team sport. It was finally accepted at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1957.
The first international competition was held in Saalfelden, Austria in 1958. There were only 25 competitors from 7 nations participating.
The biathlon made its first appearance at the winter Olympics in 1960 at Squaw Valley, USA. In that year, the sport only consisted of the 20 km individual event. In 1968, the 30 km relay race was introduced. In 1974, the Biathlon World Cup debuted the 10 km individual sprint race and this was introduced to the Olympics in 1980. Women's events were not introduced until the 1992 Olympics.
The current World Cup Championships consists of 9 events and is usually attended by more than 30 nations. Although the sport remains relatively obscure in North America, it is the most popular televised winter sporting event in Europe. The International Biathlon Union has 57 member nations from 5 continents, with over 40 of these regularly participating in the World Championships and Olympics.
The Biathlon Competition
All competitors must use .22 rifles with non optical sights and a minimum weight of 3.5 kg. The magazines for the rifle may only hold five rounds of ammunition and the maximum muzzle velocity for a bullet is 380 m/s. The rifles are carried by the competitors throughout the course.
Except for the relay format, the biathlete is allowed only five rounds to hit the five targets at each shooting station. The course is laid out so all of the shooting takes place at a central location. The targets themselves are rows of black metal flaps that are 4.5 cm in diameter for the prone shots, and 11.5 cm in diameter for standing shots. Hitting a flap knocks it down, and causes a white cover to flip up, indicating a hit.
There are two shooting positions: standing or prone and depend on the competition. The clock continues to run during shooting and there is no time out to complete the targets. There are two possible penalties for missing a target. In some competitions 1 minute of time is added for every miss and in others, racers must ski a 150 meter penalty loop.
It is interesting to note that skiers slow down as they approach the target area and wait for their heart rate to slow slightly. They then attempt to pull the trigger in time with their heartbeats.
The Individual Competition
This is the original event. The course for the individual competition is 20 km long, the longest out of any of the biathlon events. There are four bouts of shooting. In the men's competition, the first set of shots is taken 4 km from the starting line and every 4 kilometers thereafter. The women's race is 15 km, and racers shoot after 3 km.
The penalty for missed targets in the individual competition is one minute added to the total time.
The Sprint Competition
This is the faster version of the individual competition and on a shorter course. During the 10 km race, skiing speed is more important than target accuracy and the penalty for missed targets is a 150 meter loop. There are only two bouts of shooting.
The Pursuit Competition
The eligibility to compete, and the start order and intervals, in a Pursuit competition are based on a qualifying competition which is normally held the previous day. Both the Sprint and the Individual competitions can be used as the qualifying competition but the Sprint is the norm. The total participation in World Championships and World Cup Pursuit competitions is 60.
The basic concept of the Pursuit is that the winner of the qualifying competition starts first and the remainder follow in the order and time that they finished behind the winner in the qualifying competition. The Pursuit is highly exciting because it can be seen at any time who is leading and because of the psychology of the competitors pursuing the athletes ahead of them. The first competitor to cross the finish line is the winner, subject to any penalties or time adjustments. If competitors are lapped in the competition, they must withdraw immediately.
The Mass Start Competition
In this competition the number of participants is limited to 27. All competitors begin the race at the same time and it is more exiting to watch than other events since it is evident who is winning. Participation is based on World Cup total score and also includes the medalists in the above competitions.
The Relay Competition
The relay competition is the same for both the men's and women's events. Four skiers race a 7.5 km, with prone shooting after the first 2.5 km and standing shooting after the nest 2.5 km. This is the only event that allows extra rounds. For each bout of shooting, competitors have an additional 3 shots, which must be loaded individually, if they miss.
For an excellent history on the development of skiing check out Professor_Pi's write up on skiing.