Origins of biathlon: The long and winding road to an Olympic debut

Biathlon combines the rigours of cross-country skiing and the precision of rifle shooting - and its deep roots in the rough realities of Scandinavia help explain the emergence of one of the quirkiest events on the Olympic Winter Games' calendar.

By Jonah Fontela
Picture by 2017 Getty Images

If there’s one sport at the Olympic Winter Games that can set the uninitiated to scratching their heads, it’s the biathlon. This grueling union of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting seems to catch a few by surprise every four years - but we assure you, the modern biathlon we know today has firm foundations and a rich history to draw upon.

Join us for a closer look at the only event on the Olympic Winter Games programme with a shooting component.

· READ | Five Things to Know about Beijing 2022 Biathlon

The modern version of the biathlon is a test of speed, endurance and the ability to hit a rifle target in the midst of extreme exertion.

Long-distance cross country skiing is tough enough but when you toss in the pauses for the athletes to hit a target at 50m, with exhaustion taking a toll and lactic acid building in the muscles and wreaking havoc on hopes of accuracy, you have a unique challenge on your hands.

The 150m penalty loop for a missed shot only makes the event all the more punishing - and speaks to the sport’s entrenched roots in military rigour and discipline.

Earliest biathlon origins

It should come as no surprise that the roots of the sport lie in the high-stakes business of cold-weather hunting. Cave scratchings dated more than 4,000 years ago in modern-day Norway, show distinct images of men hunting animals on skis. Fast forward past the advent of the firearm and the practice of skiing deep into the backcountry and dense forests of Scandinavia, rifle slung over one shoulder, in search of protein sources for the long winters, became common – and critical for survival and protection.

By the dawn of the 18th century, the notion of riflemen on skis was absorbed seamlessly into the military realities of the Scandinavian and Nordic nations. Ski companies were employed in the protection of borders well into the 20th century and became the foundations for skiing clubs in a strictly sporting sense.

In 1767 a competition of sorts – nothing like the modern biathlon we know today – was held in the borderlands of Sweden and Norway. It is accepted as the first of its kind.

Early Biathlon

The first competitions to resemble what we know as today's biathlon were held in the early years of the 20th century. These led the way to an Olympic debut – of a kind – in 1924.

Chamonix’s military patrols

While the first modern biathlon didn’t make its Olympic debut until 1960, there was a precursor sneak-peek at the inaugural Olympic Winter Games of 1924, high in the Alps in Chamonix, France. A crude imagining of what would later become the biathlon, the military patrol as it was known, was a curiosity of the era.

Interest and participation were enough to see it carried over as a demonstration sport for further Games in 1928, 1936 and 1948.

The military patrol consisted of cross-country skiing, ski mountaineering and rifle shooting at targets. Four-man patrols, exclusively comprised of soldiers – one officer, one non-commissioned officer and two privates carrying packs – climbing 500 to 1200 metres.

The competition also consisted of 25 kilometre cross-country skiing and rifle shooting.

France's flag bearer for the 1924 Games, Camille Mandrillon, took the Olympic oath for the Military Patrol event in 1924 before going on to win the bronze in the event alongside younger brother Maurice.

Cue a ‘modern’ debut

By 1960 – three and a half decades after the debut of the military patrol competitions and 12 years after their demise – the powers that be settled on a modern Olympic conception of the biathlon. There was much wrangling and campaigning before the debut of the sport at Squaw Valley (now known as Palisades Tahoe) in the United States, which consisted of one event only at McKinney Creek Stadium in California.

There, the first-ever biathlon gold medal was scooped, unsurprisingly, by a Scandinavian: the Swede Klas Lestander.

The event has since become entrenched in the fabric of the Olympic Winter Games with the Germans and Norwegians dominating the medal count.

Until the 1976 Games in Innsbruck, where the Soviets and Nikolay Kruglov led the medal charge, the biathlon consisted of only a single individual race and one relay. In Upstate New York, in Lake Placid in 1980, a second individual event was introduced.

A women’s biathlon event was added to the Olympic programme in Albertville in 1992, with the German Antje Misersky-Harvey becoming the first woman to win an individual biathlon gold (plus three silvers).

In Salt Lake City in 2002, a 12.5km pursuit event was introduced for men and 10km for women. From Turin 2006 onward, a new mass-start event came into being for both men and women – bringing together the 30 best athletes from the previous World Cup.

Biathlon comes to Beijing

The 2022 Olympic Winter Games competition will take place from 5-19 February 2022.

All biathlon events will be contested at the National Biathlon Center in the Zhangjiakou competition zone, one of three new venues constructed in the Guyangshu Cluster.

· READ | Who to Watch in the Beijing Biathlon

The biathlon competition at the Winter Olympics features 11 events:

Men

10 km Sprint

20 km Individual

12.5 km Pursuit

15 km Mass Start

4 x 7.5 km Relay

Women

7.5 km Sprint

15 km Individual

10 km Pursuit

12.5 km Mass Start

4 x 6 km Relay

Mixed

4 x 6 km (W+M) Mixed Relay

A maximum of 210 quota spots are available to athletes to compete in biathlon at the games. A maximum 105 men and 105 women may qualify.

Each biathlon event is treated as a race, with athletes skiing through a trail whose distance is divided into shooting rounds. Depending on the event, missed shots result in additional time or distance being added to the athlete's total.

Biathlon at the 2018 Winter Games
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

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