What Is Biathlon

Biathlon is a word that means two contests. In the case of the Olympic sport of biathlon, these two contests are skiing and marksmanship. The sport is both a test of skill and the endurance of a competitor. While the sport has its origins in military conflict and military training, it eventually cemented itself as a European winter sport. The event today remains a large part of the Winter Olympics and is typically dominated by the Swedish and Finnish teams.

  • Description: A sport in which an athlete races on a cross-country ski course while also shooting targets with a rifle
  • Founded By: Trysil Rifle and Ski Club
  • Founded Date: 1861
  • Governing Bodies: International Biathlon Union (IBU), Olympic Committee
  • Countries:  Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Finland, Sweden, Taiwan, Ukraine, United Kingdom, USA
  • Regions: North America, Scandinavia, Europe, Russia, Australia
  • Categories: Activities, Winter Sports, Individual Sports, Non-Contact Sports, Team Sports, Outdoor Sports, Skiing Sports, Sports, Olympic Sports


Combining marksmanship with skiing has long been a part of Scandinavian tradition, but the modern concept of biathlon was first seen in the Second Northern War of 1767. During this conflict, Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish troops all fought skirmishes along the borders of their nations using skis and rifles. At the conclusion of the war, the biathlon was practiced by both the Swedish and Finnish militaries as a form of military practice.

The idea of biathlon as a sport was codified as a competition by the Trysil Rifle and Ski Club in 1861. Following the Scandinavian adaptation of the Trysil club rules, the sport was demonstrated at the 1924 Olympic Games in France. In 1961, the biathlon was included as an official men's event in the Olympics. Twenty years later, the sport was added to the women's roster of events as well. Since then, the biathlon has remained one of the Winter Olympics’ most cherished events.


The main equipment used in the Biathlon are a pair of cross-country skis and a highly custom .22 caliber small-bore rifle. The skis are generally high-end cross-country skis, the same as the kind used in any professional cross country skiing event. The rifle, which  occasionally uses lasers instead of ammunition, is a very technical and highly custom piece of equipment used only for biathlon. Every aspect of the rifle is fitted to the user, including the sight levels, the stock length, and the weight of the firearm. The biathlon course also utilizes custom targets and shooting mats designed specifically for biathlon competitions. These targets are typically placed 50 meters away from the shooting position of the racers.

Biathlon Scoring Format

While there are six types of biathlon events, all events are race competitions with the winner being the competitor with the fastest finishing time. The types of biathlon run by the IBU are individual, relay, pursuit, sprint, mass start, and team. The differences between types of biathlons come down to the distance of the track and the number of racers present per team. 

While the racing aspect is what is used to determine a winner in biathlon, the shooting part of the competition is used as a way to apply time penalties to the final time of a racer. Occasionally this minute penalty is instead dealt with an additional 150-meter penalty loop. Every shot taken and missed in IBU and Olympic events results in a minute addition to the final time of the racer. The usual pattern of shooting is prone, standing, prone, standing, prone, etc. The number of targets and the amount of times competitors shoot is dependent upon the competition.


How does biathlon work?

The biathlon works as a cross-country ski race with an added shooting component. The skier who finishes a set distance in the least amount of time is declared to be the winner. During the course of the race, competitors are required to shoot at targets 50 meters away from a designated shooting area. Every shot that misses a target results in a minute being added to the final time of the completion of the race.

Who created the biathlon?

The biathlon was created in Norway by the Trysil Ski and Rifle Club in 1861. Previously, the event was used as a part of the military training conducted by both the Swedish and Finnish Armies in the mid-1700s. The Biathlon was first demonstrated as a sport at the 1924 Olympics in France. It has been an official Olympic sport since 1961.

Is biathlon an Olympic sport?

Both the men’s and women's biathlon are Winter Olympic Sports. The sport was a demonstrative event in the Olympics until 1961, where it was added as an official men's event. The Biathlon remained a men's only sporting event until 1981 when it was finally added to the women's events roster.