What is Biathlon?
Biathlon is a Winter Olympic event that involves two sports: cross-country skiing and shooting. Both sports are incorporated into one race, as competitors ski through a course while stopping at various checkpoints to shoot at targets. This action is performed using small rifles that are strapped to the back of each athlete when they are not in use. The 2018 Winter Olympics included 11 different biathlon events. Rules differ slightly based on the format of the event. For example, one format might require an athlete to complete an extra lap around the track for every target missed, while another penalizes the athlete by adding an extra minute to their overall time.
Surprisingly enough, biathlon is not rooted in sports, but rather in survival skills. It can be traced back to early Scandinavia, where townsfolk preferred to hunt on skis for the increased mobility. The first sport-like version was organized by the Norwegian military in 1912, though biathlon did not make its official Olympic debut until 1960.
The term ‘biathlon’ is derived from the Ancient Greek word for two contests. This is quite fitting when one considers that the event represents the conjunction of two sports into one race.
Biathlons take place on a snow-covered track that spans anywhere from 3 to 5 kilometers (2 to 3 miles). Unlike conventional ski slopes, biathlon courses form a loop to allow for the completion of multiple laps. Moreover, there are firing ranges (a series of targets positioned 165 feet away from the shooting location) at the tail end of the loop. Competitors must successfully complete 3 to 4 loops around the track and shoot at five targets at the conclusion of each loop in order to finish the race. This does not include penalties for missed targets, which can be assessed in the form of an automatic time addition or an additional 150 meter lap.
Below are some essential equipment items for participation in a biathlon:
- Targets: Round metal disks attached to a stand that light up to indicate that the target has been hit successfully
- Rifles: Lightweight, long guns that fire a single shot at a time and can store up to three rounds worth of bullets (equipped with a strap to allow competitors to store rifles on their backs when they are not in use)
- Skate Skis: Stiff, short skis that often have special glide wax applied to the underbelly to allow for ease of movement around the track
- Goggles: Used to shield the eyes from flying fragments and harsh glare caused by sunlight reflecting off of the snow
- Gloves: Waterproof, lightweight and insulated, gloves protect the wearer’s hands and reduce the effect felt by extremely cold temperatures
- Racing Suits: Skin-tight unitards that allow athletes to remain flexible, while also using insulation to protect against harsh wind chills
While six different types of biathlon events are recognized by the sport’s highest governing body, the most common three have a few slight differences. For the individual event, athletes complete four laps around the track (15 km for women, 20 km for men), stopping to shoot at targets at the conclusion of each lap (target shooting alternates between standing position and laying down). Each missed target adds a minute onto the athlete’s final time taken to finish the course. The winner is the individual with the fastest time.
The format of the sprint is very similar to the individual event, with participants competing to complete the course the fastest. The only differences are a shorter track (7.5 km for women, 10 km for men) and only two shooting stages as opposed to four.
Finally, the pursuit takes place as a follow-up to the sprint event. The top 60 finishers from the sprint event begin at different intervals for the pursuit based on their times from the previous event. For example, the athlete that posted the best time during the sprint gets a 4 minute head start, followed by the second and third place finishers, and so on. For this particular event, there are four different shooting stops. Unlike the individual race, however, the shooting position does not alternate every turn. Instead, the first two shoots are performed from a lying down position and the final two are taken from a standing position. Laps are 10 km for women and 12.5 km for men, and each missed target requires the athlete to complete an additional 0.15 km penalty lap.
Position Roles and Responsibilities
For races that require the athletes to compete on an individual basis, there are no distinct positional roles or responsibilities. Instead, participants are simply competing against one another to record the fastest possible time.
Relay events are different, consisting of four athletes per team. Teams must be strategic when deciding the order, as only one skier from each team is permitted to race at any given point. A common strategy is to have the slowest performer go first and the fastest athlete go last, as even a poor start from the first athlete gives the team an opportunity to make up lost time.
Rules and Regulations
The list below includes basic biathlon rules and regulations:
Distance Regulations: Athletes ski anywhere from 6 to 20 km per loop depending on the event format.
Shooting Regulations: Target shooting occurs 2 or 4 times depending on the event format (lying down or standing position is dictated for each stop).
Target Regulations: Targets must be situated exactly 50 meters from the shooting point and have a diameter of 115 mm for standing shots versus 45 mm for prone (lying down) shots.
Penalty Rules: For every missed target, athletes are subject to either one minute being added onto their final time or an additional 0.15 km penalty loop around the track.
Gameplay Rules: The following order must be maintained: one lap around the track, followed by target shooting at a designated location (repeat several times).
Starting Regulations: All athletes must begin at the designated start line, aside from events where the starting order is predetermined (i.e. pursuit events where some performers are given a timed head start).
Relay Rules: Only one teamer member is allowed on the track at a time, the next athlete is permitted to start only when tagged by a teammate in the tagging zone.
Referees and Officials
There are two types of officials present at every biathlon event. Track officials are positioned at various points along the skiing loop to ensure that athletes are completing each lap in its entirety using no other means than their skis. Target officials are located at each shooting location, with one positioned behind the shooter while the other stands near the target. The shooting supervisor is responsible for making sure athletes maintain proper positioning and fire off one single shot without any assistance, while the target supervisor helps to verify whether or not the target has been successfully hit.
Lingo and Terminology
- Zero: Taking practice shots at paper targets prior to the race to adjust the rifle for wind/sun conditions.
- Shooting Mat: A mat made out of a non-slip material to help stabilize athletes when shooting in a standing or lying down position.
- Shooting Clean: Successfully hitting each target during the shooting stages.
- Standing Position: Shooting from an upright, two-footed stance.
- Prone Position: Shooting from a lying down, stomach-to-ground position.
- Range Time: How long it takes an athlete to enter the shooting area, fire at the targets, secure the rifle and begin another loop around the track.
- Range Procedure: The steps taken just prior to firing at the targets (detaching from the skis, getting into position, readying the rifle, etc.)
- Standing/Prone Targets: Targets differ in diameter depending on the position assumed while shooting (11.5 cm for standing, 4.5 cm for prone)
Skills and Techniques
Biathlon races are unique in that they require athletes to master two feats and perform them simultaneously: skiing and shooting. First and foremost, biathlon participants must be in great cardiovascular shape in order to handle a rigorous ski routine that is essentially an all out sprint. Other important skills and techniques include sharp ski cutting, rifle aiming, and various adjustments to accommodate unexpected snow or sun conditions.
Coaching is a crucial part of the biathlon for both individual and team relay events. Oftentimes, the athletes with the most preparation and solid coaching advice have the most success. Biathlon coaches need to be well versed in both skiing and rifle shooting techniques. While personal experience as a skier or marksman is helpful, it is not absolutely necessary to become a successful biathlon coach. Responsibilities of a biathlon coach include teaching rifle safety, providing tips and feedback for heightened shooting accuracy, and developing training programs that help athletes to become faster skiers/shooters.
For Olympic Biathlon events, each participating nation has a team coach for both their male and female athletes. The USA men’s biathlon coach is Vegard Bitnes, while the women’s coach is Armin Auchentaller.
In order to perform consistently well in biathlons, athletes must approach each race with good strategies for success. Individual strategies vary based on each athlete’s own unique tendencies. For example, an athlete that is extremely gifted at the shooting aspect of the race is likely to speed through that portion of the event, knowing they need to work quickly to make up for less than perfect skiing. Conversely, an athlete that struggles with shooting compared to the rest of the field must decide whether it is advantageous to take extra time and focus on accuracy during the shooting portion, or maintain the same speed and risk having penalty time added on.
Moreover, athletes need to devise strategies to conserve energy. Biathlon races can be extremely draining from both a mental and physical standpoint, so knowing when to kick things into a higher gear versus when to slow down for a brief moment is crucial. These are known as pacing strategies, which can be dictated by metrics pertaining to heart rate and breathing patterns.
Drills are incorporated into practice sessions to sharpen athletes’ skiing and shooting skills. The best way to improve skiing speed is to simply perform several practice runs on a long, sloping track similar to the one present at official competitions. Shooting drills are a little more detailed. The most common is called shooting ladders. In this drill, athletes start by getting into a proper shooting position (prone or standing) and proceed to fire at a target. Next, the athlete must reset and start the whole process over again, but this time shoot at two consecutive targets. The cycle then repeats up to five consecutive targets until the athlete completes the drill without a single misfire.
While early forms of the biathlon were tied to the Olympics as early as 1924, the current biathlon did not make its Olympic debut until 1960. Initially, only two event types (individual and relay races) took place, before the sport expanded to other formats in 1980. Approximately 12 years later, the first ever women’s Olympic biathlon event took place in 1992. Since then, the biathlon has remained a staple of the Winter Olympic slate, with the best athletes from all competing for gold.
- Ole Einar Bjorndalen (retired, 13 Olympic medals)
- Uschi Disl (retired, 9 Olympics medals)
- Martin Fourcade (current, 7 Olympic medals)
- Anastasiya Kuzmina (retired, 3 Olympic medals)
- Magdalena Forsberg (retired, 2 Olympic medals)
- Laura Dahlmeier (retired, 2 Olympic medals)
|U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA)||United States||Pro|
|British Biathlon Union (BBU)||United Kingdom||Pro|
|Norweigan Biathlon Association (NSSF)||Norway||Pro|
|Midcoast Conservancy Biathlon||Jefferson, Maine||Amateur|
- Fischer (Ski)
- Rossignol (Ski)
- Madshus (Ski)
- Salomon (Ski)
- Atomic (Ski)
- Anschutz (Rifle)
- IBU Junior Cup
- Biathlon World Championships
- Biathlon European Championships
- Biathlon at the Winter Universiade
- Biathlon Handbook by Veli M. J. Niinimaa
- Wild Shot: Struggles and Successes in Biathlon and Cross Country Skiing by Andy Liebner
- Biathlon: Training and Racing Techniques by Bob Babbitt & Ken Souza
- Greatest Biathlon Olympic Athletes to Ever Compete: Top 100 by Vadim Kravetsky
- Biathlon, Cross Country, Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined by Kylie Burns
What Sports Are in a Biathlon?
A biathlon consists of two sports, one of which is skiing and the other is rifle shooting. Both sports are combined into one event, with athletes having to carry rifles on their backs when they are not actively shooting at targets.
How Far Are the Targets in Biathlon?
Targets are positioned exactly 50 meters away (54.7 yards) from the shooter.
How Long Is a Biathlon?
The time it takes to finish a biathlon tends to vary. However, athletes do need to complete several laps and shooting sessions throughout the contest. The best performers in the individual event tend to finish in approximately 50 minutes. Due to the high volume of competitors and extensive number of events, biathlons (i.e. Olympic slate) can take several hours from start to full completion.
How Does the Biathlon Work?
The biathlon requires athletes to race around a course with a rifle strapped to their backs, stopping at the conclusion of each lap to shoot at a series of targets. For every missed target, athletes are subject to a time or distance penalty (i.e. extra minute added to total finishing time, extra 0.15 km lap required).