Beginners Guide to Olympic Biathlon

11 November 2013 / 08:30

The word biathlon comes from the Greek word bi meaning two and athlon meaning contest with Sochi 2014 set to be the sports 15th official appearance on the Olympic schedule.

Biathlon has its origins in the ancient hunting practices of northern Europeans and involves athletes combining skiing with shooting.

Athletes ski a predetermined distance before stopping at a shooting range to fire at five targets. The biathlon rifle is a 5.6mm caliber weapon carried on an athlete’s back in a special harness with the barrel pointed up.

Military patrol featured at the very first Games at Chamonix 1924 but was a demonstration event at three Olympics thereafter – St Moritz 1928, Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1936 and St Moritz 1948 – before biathlon’s debut at Squaw Valley 1960.

The number of events has grown from just the men’s individual in 1960 to 11 with women allowed to compete at the Games for the first time at Albertville 1992 and Sochi 2014 marking the first time that a mixed relay event will be contested at the Olympics.

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen is the most successful biathlete at the Olympic Winter Games with a total of 11 medals – six gold, four silver and one bronze.

He is the only biathlete to have won every event during the same Games – winning four golds at Salt Lake City 2002 with the mass start not introduced until Turin 2006.

At Vancouver 2010 he surpassed German Uschi Disl’s record Olympic biathlon medal haul of nine with gold and silver making him the second most decorated Winter Olympian of all time just one medal away from equaling Norwegian cross country skier Bjorn Daehlie’s record of 12.

Despite Bjoerndalen’s successes it is Germany and not Norway who are the most successful biathlon nation at the Olympics while Britain is one of only six countries to have fielded athletes at every Games since the sports debut at Squaw Valley 1960.

Mike Dixon represented Britain at five Olympic Winter Games in biathlon from Calgary 1988 to Salt Lake City 2002 having switched from cross country skiing after making his debut at Sarajevo 1984. 

There are five biathlon disciplines at the Olympic Winter Games, which provide 11 medal events: Individual, sprint, pursuit, mass start and relay.

Men and women compete separately in each event but join forces in the mixed relay, which is set to be held for the first time ever at an Olympics at Sochi 2014.

Athletes shoot at targets from 50 metres with target sizes 115mm in diameter for standing and 45mm for prone.

The individual competition is a classical style biathlon race over 20km for men and 15km for women with four shooting lanes. Athletes start at intervals of 30 seconds or a minute and chose their own shooting lane.

The first and third shoots are prone while the second and fourth are standing. Every target of the five missed leads to a one-minute penalty.

The sprint is a shorter version of the individual event over 10km for men and 7.5km for women. There are just two shooting stages – one prone and one standing – and for every missed target a 150m penalty loop must be undertaken.

The top 60 finishers of the sprint – both men’s and women’s – qualify for the pursuit which is also a staggered start dependent on an athletes time in the sprint.

The sprint winner starts the race followed by each athlete at the same time they trailed them. Covering 12.5km for men and 10km for women, this event reverts back to four shooting stages but with the first two prone and second two standing. Like the sprint, a 150m penalty loop is undertaken for every missed target.

The mass start covers 15km for men and 12.5km for women with the 30 highest ranked athletes from the previous four events starting together simultaneously and taking their place in the shooting range dependent on their start number.

Athletes line up at the remaining shooting stages dependent on the order in which they arrived at the firing line. The first two are prone and second two standing, with the 150m penalty loop for missed a target still applying.

The relay incorporates three events with the men’s a 4x7.5km event, the women’s 2x6km and the mixed split into two with two legs for women and two for men over the distances they race separately.

Teams are four-strong with each leg involving two shoots – one prone and one standing. Unlike the individual events each athlete has eight rounds of ammunition for each shooting stage – five in the magazine and three that can be loaded by hand if needed. If unsuccessful after eight rounds, athletes must ski a 150m penalty loop for each target missed.

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