By Jeremy Ervin | BSU at the Games

The Olympic Games provide a venue to many sports that don’t get much national attention between international competitions.

Biathlon is among those.

When the Winter Olympics roll around, many people scratch their heads and ask: “What’s the deal with biathlon?”

The gist

So, here’s the straight dope on the cross-country skiing and shooting hybrid sport.

Athletes ski-race a specific distance depending on the event. At certain intervals, they must stop and shoot. Five targets are placed 50 meters 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 more difficult to shoot accurately.


The sport's beginnings came out of simple necessity, according to the U.S. Biathlon Team.

There is 4,000-thousand-year-old Norwegian art depicting men hunting animals on skis.

Later, the need switched from food to defense, as Nordic countries trained soldiers in both skiing and shooting.

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The first organized competition was recorded in 1767 among border-patrol companies along the Norway-Sweden 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 Winter Olympics sport in 1955, and made its debut at the 1956 Winter Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.


Like many Olympic sports, there are variations on the core concept in biathlon.

The International Biathlon Union acknowledges three types of competition in six events:

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  • Individual (20 kilometers or 12.4 miles for men; 15 kilometers of 9.3 miles for women): These are the longest distances biathletes compete in. Pretty simple: It’s a straight-up race with the best time winning. Each missed shot results in a one-minute penalty.
  • Sprint (10k/6.2 miles for men; 7.5k/4.65 miles for women): This is similar to the individual event with some 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 biathlete to ski a 150-meter loop before continuing on the regular course.
  • Pursuit (12.5k/7.75 miles for men; 10k/6.2 miles for women): To participate in pursuit, biathletes must qualify by placing well in another competition (either individual or sprint, but normally sprint). The skiers start based on their qualifying performance, with the best score starting first. They then play catch-up with the leaders. There are four bouts of shooting, two prone and two standing.
  • Mass start (15k/9.3 miles for men; 12.5k/7.75 miles for women): This is similar to the individual competition. Everyone starts simultaneously, and the competition follows the prone, standing, standing shooting sequence of pursuit. In the first round of shooting, the start number determines the lanes to race in. After that, it’s first-come first-serve.
  • Relay (4-by-7.5k for men; 4-by-6k for women): Each team has four members who each race an equal leg of the total distance. All first-leg biathletes start in a mass start, with their starting position determining the lanes on the first shooting stop. Athletes shoot twice on their route. The first team to get their four relay member across the finish line wins.
  • Mixed relay (2-by-7.5k for men; 2-by-6k for women): The Sochi Winter Olympics are the first Winter Games to offer the co-ed event. The starting order is woman, woman, man, man, with the first team to the finish the victor.
  • Sochi results

    Norway's Ole Einar Björndalen on Saturday won his first individual gold medal in 12 years. He claimed the men's 10k sprint, with one penalty in 24 minutes, 33.5 seconds, at Laura Cross-Country Ski & Biathlon Center in Sochi, Russia.

    Harry How/Getty Images

    The 40-year-old biathlon legend took an early lead and held off Austria's Dominik Landertinger, who was 10 years old when Björndalen won his first gold medal in 1998. 1998. Landertinger shot clean, but was 1.3 seconds behind Björndalen. The bronze medal went to Czech Republic's Jaroslav Soukup, who also shot clean, but finished 5.7 seconds back. The United States' Tim Burke, a 32-year-old from Paul Smiths, N.Y., finished 19th, 49.8 seconds back.

    The 2010 Winter Olympics women's sprint champion, Slovakia's Anastasiya Kuzmina, defended her title.

    A native of Russia, Kuzmina, 29, didn't miss a shot and wasn't seriously challenged in finishing in 21:06.8, 19.9 seconds ahead of Russia's Olga Vilukhina, the silver medalist. The bronze went to Ukraine's Vita Semerenko, who hit every target, but finished 21.7 seconds behind. The U.S.' Susan Dunklee, a 27-year-old from Craftsbury, Vt., finished 41.5 seconds back in 14th -- the top Olympic sprint finish ever by an American woman.

    Here's the biathlon schedule for the remainder of the Sochi Games:

    • Today -- Men's pursuit.
    • Tuesday -- Women's pursuit.
    • Thursday -- Men's individual.
    • Friday -- Women's individual.
    • Sunday -- Men's mass start.
    • Feb. 17 -- Women's mass start.

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    -- Townsquare Media Grand Rapids' Rick Martinez contributed to this report.