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Winter Olympics - Biathlon

Courtesy of The United States Olympic Committee


The word "biathlon" stems from the Greek word for two contests. Today it's interpreted as a joining of two sports: cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. Biathlon originally was a tactic of survival rather than a sport. Northern Europeans skied to hunt for food and, later, skied with weapons to defend their countries. The first known biathlon competition took place between two Norwegian guard companies in 1767. A century later, rifle and ski clubs could be found throughout Norway as recreation began to complement military training.

The Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne et Biathlon was founded in 1948 and worked for the development of both sports in Olympic competition. They instituted annual World Championships for the modern pentathlon in 1949 and for the men's biathlon in 1958. The biathlon World Championships debuted in Saalfelden, Austria, and is held every year with the exception of Olympic years. A women's World Championships has been held every year since 1984. Since 1993, the sport has been governed by the International Biathlon Union (IBU).


Biathlon was included as a military exercise in the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924 and continued as a demonstration sport in 1928, 1936 and 1948, but was removed from the Games after World War II because of post-war sensitivities. Officially, biathlon was added to the Olympic program at the 1960 Squaw Valley Games with a men's 20km individual event. In 1968, the four-man relay event was added to the program and the sprint competition was added 12 years later in Lake Placid. In 1992, women made their Olympic biathlon debut with individual, sprint and relay events in Albertville. The men's and women's pursuit events will be contested for the first time in the Olympics in Salt Lake.

Soviet athletes have dominated Olympic biathlon competition. Including 1992, when the athletes were competing as the Unified Team, the former Soviet Union captured a total of 25 medals, including 11 golds. The men's relay team from the Soviet Union won the first six relay competitions until the Germans finally beat them in 1992. The Russian federation has continued the Soviet's success, winning eight medals in the last two Winter Games, including four golds.


There are eight biathlon events in the Olympic program. Men and women will compete in a sprint, pursuit, individual and relay. The specific distances are as follows:

Men's events Women's events
10km sprint 7.5km sprint
12.5km pursuit 10km pursuit
20km individual 15km individual
4x7.5km relay 4x7.5km relay

Although all biathlon disciplines combine skiing and marksmanship, the sport features several distinct events.

During the sprint, women race 7.5 kilometers and men race 10 kilometers. Competitors stop twice and must hit all five targets with five bullets. For each target missed, athletes take a lap around the 150-meter penalty loop. The top 60 finishers of this competition qualify for the pursuit.

In the pursuit, the competitors start at intervals based on their finish in the sprint competition. Women race 10 kilometers and men race 12.5 kilometers. Competitors stop four times and must hit all five targets with five bullets. For each target missed, athletes take a lap around the 150-meter penalty loop. The pursuit is making its Olympic debut at the Salt Lake Games.

In the individual event, women race 15 kilometers and men race 20 kilometers. All competitors stop four times at the firing range and must hit all five targets with five bullets. For each target missed, one minute is added to their total time.

The relay is a fast-paced team event in which four-person teams tackle four 7.5-kilometer legs for a total of 30 kilometers. It begins with a mass start by the first skiers of their respective teams. Each team member has two firing sequences and is allowed three extra bullets (for a total of eight) to hit five targets, yet must load the three extra bullets one by one. For each target left standing, competitors ski a lap around the 150-meter penalty loop.

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