Look to the past: Magnar Solberg and the art of shooting on an anthill

Shooting is an integral element of biathlon and athletes use a variety of techniques to ensure they aren't distracted. Even insect bites can’t stop some of them. 

By Ilya Yashynin

Martin Stokken's first major sporting victory came in 1946 when he became the Norwegian cross-country champion. Stokken had only recently returned from Sweden, where he had fought in World War II on the side of the Norwegian Resistance.

The 23-year-old didn’t want to return to his previous job as a shepherd so he turned his attention to athletics. In 1948, he went to the Summer Olympics in London, where he competed in the 10km race. He finished fourth, just five seconds behind the bronze medallist.

Martin Stokken and Hakon Brusveen, Norwegian skiing champions

Stokken worked all year round to build his strength up. Instead of waiting for the Norwegian snow to melt during the winter, he developed his endurance through skiing. With an abundance of snow in northern Europe, the Trondheim native was able to hone his skiing technique, to the point where he was good enough to compete at the Oslo 1952 Winter Olympics.

Competing at home, Stokken won a silver medal in the 4x10km relay. During his leg of the relay, he overtook a Swedish rival to ensure his team came home second.

Over the course of his career, Stokken was crowned Norwegian champion on 24 occasions, with 19 athletics victories and five cross-country skiing titles. In the post-war landscape of Norway, Stokken became an icon - particularly within the police force, with whom he had worked since 1950.

While Stokken was working at the police station, he met a young new recruit who would go on to become an Olympic champion: Magnar Solberg.

Stokken noticed Solberg’s sporting potential immediately and suggested that he try his hand at the increasingly popular sport of biathlon. As Solberg wasn’t the fastest skier, Stokken had the young athlete concentrate on shooting - one of the key elements of biathlon.

Out on the shooting range, there are many things that can distract an athlete. Rapid heart rates, screaming fans, gusts of winds - all of these and more can decrease your levels of concentration. Knowing that a successful shooting round could make up for his lack of skiing speed, Stokken devised an ingenious training method to help his student improve his shooting.

The two police officers would travel to a forest, where Stokken would find an anthill and place a target 50 metres away from it. Solberg would then proceed to do a few dozen push-ups before standing on the anthill, taking aim and shooting, with his hands still shaking from his previous physical exertion.

During the sessions, insects would crawl all over Solberg, leaving him with bites that covered his legs. However, when he assumed the prone shooting position, things were even worse, as ants ran amock across his body.

While you would think training in those conditions was bad enough, things were made worse by Stokken’s sheepdog who circled the anthill and barked into Solberg’s ear. It became impossible to concentrate, but day by day Solberg’s shooting improved. After a long - and uncomfortable - period of training, Solberg reached an almost zen-like state.

At the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, Solberg lined up in the individual race alongside rising biathlon star Alexander Tikhonov. While Tikhonov skied incredibly fast, he missed two shots on the shooting range. As expected, Solberg could not match Tikhonov’s pace on the skis but when it came to the shooting element, he hit 20 out of 20 targets for the first time in his career.

As the competition came to an end, nobody could match Solberg and he was crowned Olympic champion. He would later go on to add Olympic silver to his medal collection, after a second-place finish in the relay.

By the time of the next Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Solberg was 35 years old. However, age would not stop him winning another gold medal. By now, Solberg was a faster skier and raced like a true professional.

"My strength was my mentality,” he said. “The evening before the individual race in Sapporo, the biathletes were playing cards. At 10 pm I said I was going to bed. Maybe the other guys in the team thought I was a little weird."

Solberg’s old rival Tikhonov entered the Sapporo Games as a five-time world champion and was dreaming of avenging his defeat in the last Olympics. The Soviet athlete began the race after the Norwegian and attempted to overtake him on the very first lap, however, Solberg arrived at the shooting range 13 seconds ahead of Tikhonov.

While Solberg missed the target twice, Tikhonov failed to hit the target on three occasions. Once again, Solberg won the gold medal.

Solberg’s achievement is still unique. No other biathlete has won the individual race at consecutive Olympics. However, it is possible that Solberg’s compatriot Sturla Holm Laegreid will one day have the chance to equal his record. Last season, the 24-year-old won two individual races and impressed the world with his shooting accuracy: 97 per cent lying down and 90 per cent standing up.

Sturla Holm Laegreid 
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

"When I see Laegreid shoot, I recognise myself a little bit. He could be the greatest biathlete ever," Solberg proclaimed.

And their shooting style is not the only thing that these past and present stars have in common. Laegreid uses Madshus skis, the same equipment used by Solberg.

The only thing Legreid doesn't have is an Olympic gold medal - something he'll attempt to remedy in Beijing. And perhaps, he might be wise to copy some of Solberg's legendary training methods, even if that does mean shooting on an anthill.