|Activities resembling the biathlon have had practical applications for more than four thousand years, from the time when Norwegian hunters used skis to find food to the Scandinavian soldiers who trained to ski while carrying a rifle. |
However, biathlon didn't become an official addition to the Olympics until the Squaw Valley Games in 1960 -- although it appeared as a demonstration sport four times before that -- and women's biathlon wasn't included in the Olympic program as a medal sport until Albertville in 1992.
Physically grueling and mentally demanding, biathlon combines skiing and shooting and consists of 10 disciplines spread out over four events: sprint, pursuit, individual and relay. The competition in Turin will take place from February 11-25 at the Cesana San Sicario venue.
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Germany leads the list of currently competing countries with 27 total medals in biathlon, followed by Norway's 17. The former Soviet Union ruled biathlon for a while, collecting an impressive 20 medals through 1988.
At least one athlete from either Germany or Norway was involved in every biathlon medal ceremony at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, and there is no reason to think that can't also be the case in Turin. Their athletes are the ones to watch, but also keep an eye on the Russian and French teams.
No athlete made a bigger splash at Salt Lake City than Norway's Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, who set a biathlete Olympic record by winning gold in all four men's events.
Germany�s Uschi Disl, who has eight Olympic and 15 world championship medals, will participate in her fifth and final Winter Games. She has more than half of Germany's 14 Olympic medals won in the women's division of biathlon.
UNITED STATES OUTLOOK
The United States, on the other hand, has never won an Olympic medal in biathlon.
And while Jay Hakkinen's 13th place finish in the pursuit competition at Salt Lake City ranks as the team's best ever placement, the United States Olympic Committee is confident that its athletes have improved enough in the past four years to challenge for a medal in Turin.
Hakkinen, 28, the first American to win a world championship in biathlon, will be back for his third Olympics. Among his teammates on the men's team will be fellow Alaskan Jeremy Teela, a specialist in the U.S. Army who placed 14th in the individual competition at Salt Lake.
At 29, Teela is the oldest member of the men's team, which will also include 24-year-old Lowell Bailey, 22-year-old Brian Olsen and Tim Burke, who will celebrate his 24th birthday a week before the Opening Ceremony.
The best chance for a medal on the women's team, the USOC believes, is Alaskan Rachel Steer, who also competed at the 2002 Games. Steer, who will be 28 when the Games begin, has won more than 10 national championships in biathlon and has been the top American female in the sport over the past three or four years.
Joining her on the U.S. team will be 23-year-old twin sisters Lanny and Tracy Barnes, who won the silver medal in women's relay at the 2002 Junior World Championship (Lanny also took bronze in the individual event).
Carolyn Treacy, 23, and Sarah Konrad, 38, round out the women's team. Konrad, the oldest U.S. biathlete competing, is the fastest American woman skier using the skating technique, which is a freestyle motion similar to ice skating.
- Gerard Gallagher, Contributing Olympics Editor