Biathlon: a sport on the cutting edge

23 Feb 2015

Biathlon is a sport with roots deep in military and survival techniques, but which has evolved to combine cutting-edge technology with fine feats of athleticism and marksmanship. In this video we chart the development of the equipment used by biathletes.

When biathlon made its debut as an Olympic discipline, at Squaw Valley (USA) in 1960, the skis were wooden, the bindings heavy and cumbersome and rifles were military issue. Nowadays, by contrast, biathletes utilise the latest in technology to achieve marginal gains, from Lycra racing suits, to special glide wax and non-optic sights.


Of course, biathlon existed long before it was introduced to the Olympic programme. Its earliest roots can be traced back to the survival skills practised in the snow-covered forests of Scandinavia, where people hunted on skis with rifles on their backs.

The first sporting biathlon events were held in the 18th century, and were organised by Norwegian skiing regiments. Competitors would take part in one of four disciplines, either shooting at a mark while skiing at top speed, racing downhill among trees or big hills, or on flat ground while carrying a rifle and military pack.

Biathlon shifted further away from its military roots when it was first adopted as a demonstration sport at the 1948 Winter Games in St Moritz. This was the first attempt to introduce a multi-disciplinary event to the Winter Games, and by this stage competitors were beginning to swap military equipment for purpose-made rifles. From 1958, competitors started to use high-power centre-fire cartridges for the first time, ammunition that was carried in a belt around the waist.

Today, biathletes use international standard lead or lead alloy .22 cartridges and where competitors would once fire at distances of 100m, 150m, 200m and 250m, this was reduced to just 50m in 1978. Mechanical targets were introduced two years later at Lake Placid, which also coincided with the introduction of a second individual event, the 10km sprint, alongside the existing race and relay. The quest for marginal gains was becoming greater than ever.


© IOC / Ian Jones 

The wooden skis that were used in early events were replaced with plastic ones and, more recently, by skis made of fiberglass. They are now often designed to be shorter in length and stiffer than more classical cross-country skis and with a less pronounced curve in the tips. Biathletes now also apply special glide wax to the bottom of each ski to further reduce friction.

The bindings used to attach boot to ski now attach just at the toe rather than toe and heel, which allows for greater movement. In the early days, the binding of feet to skis was heavy and it was difficult for competitors to move their feet. Modern designs enable the foot to flex and move more freely. Boots are continually becoming lighter and more flexible, too, which helps transmit energy from boot to skis and allows for greater lateral movement.

Many of these changes aren’t immediately obvious to the naked eye, but the racing suits used by modern biathletes most definitely are! All competitors now wear skin-tight Lycra racing suits designed to provide maximum movement and reduce wind resistance. In colder conditions (events can take plus in sub-zero temperatures), competitors will also use a base layer for insulation alongside lightweight gloves and hats. Tinted goggles reduce glare from the sun reflecting off the snow.

© IOC / John Huet

The rifles themselves have been revolutionised. Technicians are constantly finding ways to reduce rifle weight, make them easier to use and the ballistics more reliable at low temperatures. In 1978, the .22 calibre rifle became the international standard. Now, biathlon rifles use non-optic sights and a straight-pull-bolt action (no full or semi-automatics) and rifles are made from lightweight stock (a minimum of 7.7 pounds). They are also carried in specially made harnesses that protect the rifle from snow and moisture, while an arm sling provides stability in the act of shooting.

Biathlon as an Olympic event also continues to evolve. In 2002, in Salt Lake City, a 12.5km pursuit event was added for men and 10k for women. In 2006, a new mass-start event that brought together the 30 best athletes from the World Cup was introduced for both men and women.

© IOC / Anna Konovalova

At Sochi 2014 the biathlon programme included five men’s events, five women’s and a mixed relay, and provided some of the Winter Games’ most dramatic moments. No doubt the discipline’s ever growing fan base will continue to marvel at the continued evolution of this exciting Olympic fixture in PyeongChang in 2018.

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