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So what's the deal with Biathlon

By: Jeremy Ervin / BSU at the Games
February 10, 2014 Updated: February 10, 2014 at 1:17 pm
photo - (U.S. Biathlon team Twitter page).
(U.S. Biathlon team Twitter page). 

The Olympic Games give coverage to a lot of sports that don’t get national attention between the big international competitions. Biathlon is one of these. When the Winter Games roll around, people scratch their heads and ask, “What’s the deal with Biathlon?”

The Gist

So here’s the straight dope on the cross-country and shooting hybrid. Athletes ski-race a specific distance depending on the event. At certain intervals, they must stop and shoot. Five targets are placed 50m away with five rounds fired at each bout. Missed shots earn the shooter a penalty, either in time added or penalty laps. Controlling one’s breathing while racing is key because heavy panting will make it very difficult to shoot accurately.


The US Biathlon Team traces the beginning of the sport to simple necessity. Four-thousand-year-old Norwegian art depicts men hunting animals on skis.

Later, the need switched from food to defense, as Nordic countries trained soldiers in both skiing and shooting. The first organized competition was recorded in 1767 among border-patrol companies along the Norwegian-Swedish border.

The sport continued to develop in Norway, Sweden and Finland, with both military and civilian participation. International competition began in France in 1924.

Biathlon became an official Olympic sport in 1955.


Like many Olympic sports, there are a few different variations on the same core concept. The International Biathlon Union acknowledges three game types:

Individual (20km men, 15km women)

This is the longest run a biathlete will have to make. Pretty simple, it’s a straight-up race with the best time winning. Each missed shot results in a one-minute penalty.

Sprint (10km men, 7.5 km women)

This is pretty similar to the individual event, but with a few tweaks. Most strikingly, sprint is half the distance of the individual and missed shots are scored differently. Instead of a one-minute penalty, each miss requires the skier to run a 150m loop before continuing the course.

Pursuit (12.5km men, 10km women)

To participate in Pursuit, athletes must qualify by placing well in another competition (either individual or sprint, but normally sprint). The skiers start based on their qualification performance, with the best score starting first. They then play catch-up with the leader. There are four bouts of shooting, two prone and two standing.

Mass Start (15km men, 12.5km women)

This is pretty much the same as the Individual competition, except shorter distance. Everyone starts at once, and it follows the prone, prone, standing, standing shooting sequence of the Pursuit. In the first round of shooting, start number determines the lanes, but after that, it’s first-come first-serve.

Relay (4×7.5km men, 4x6km women)

It is just what it sounds like. Each team has four members who race a leg of the total distance. Like the mass start, all the first-leg skiers start at the same time, and starting position determines lanes on the very first shooting stop. Athletes will shoot twice on their route. The first team to get their last member across the finish line wins.

Mixed Relay (2×7.5km men+ 2x6km women)

Sochi will be the first Olympic Games to include the Mixed Relay as an event. Rules are the same as the relay, but it’s co-ed. Each team has two men and two women, running 7.5 km and 6km lengths respectively. Starting order is female, female, male, male. The first team to finish wins.


BSU at the Games is a freelance news agency operated by 22 student journalists reporting from the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games through an immersive-learning program at Ball State University. For more, click here.

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