Biathlon: From a Military Exercise to a Winter Olympics Mainstay

A woman holding her rifle while wearing skis for biathlon

In February 2022, the National Biathlon Center in Zhangjiakou, China will serve as the venue for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics biathlon competition. Competitors from different parts of the world would once again have to show their endurance and impressive marksmanship skills as they sprint through an 8.7 km cross-country course. 

While Biathlon is a sport that is relatively unfamiliar to most Americans, it has been a part of the Olympic games since 1960. And its roots are as unique as the sport itself.

What is Biathlon?

In a biathlon competition, athletes would have to race around a closed course with specially designed .22-calibre rifles strapped to their backs. Participants would have to stop at designated spots and should successfully shoot a series of targets while standing up or in a prone position.

A woman shooting in prone on the snow
A Prone Shooting Position in a Biathlon Competition

The targets can vary from 4.5 inches for standing shooters to 1.8 inches for prone shooters. Every missed target means a penalty for the athlete. In the Olympic games, the competition consists of 11 events, each of which is scored by time. 

Biathlon combines events such as sprint, pursuit, individual, mass start, relay, and mixed relay. As the sport demands both speed and psychological precision, biathlon certainly makes one of the most grueling winter sports that is not for the faint of heart.

The Birth of Biathlon

In 1981, the James Bond movie ‘For Your Eyes Only’ featured a scene where Erich Kriegler (John Wyman) goes through a biathlon course. When he makes a stop, James Bond (Roger Moore), who is skiing with Bibi Dahl (Lynn-Holly Johnson) in the snow-covered mountains of Cortina, Italy, watches Kriegler shoot a set of targets with astonishing precision. Like a true gentleman, the world’s most recognizable spy instantly recognizes Kriegler’s aptitude for the sport.

But to fully understand the roots of biathlon that go beyond the cinematic portrayals of Hollywood, one would have to search in Norway. A country rife with tradition and rich history, the fascination that the Norwegians have for skiing can be traced as far as 5,000 years ago. 

Early settlers in the Norwegian island of Tro carved an image depicting a skier on a rock. Ski fragments that are at least a thousand to 3,500 years old have also been found in the bogs in Norway and neighboring Scandinavian countries.

Even the Vikings, who were known as fierce and noble warriors in their time, also used skis as a way to get around and as a way to have fun. With such a long history, it doesn’t come as a surprise why the Norwegians’ affinity for skiing would soon develop beyond the confines of transportation and recreation.

The year 1776 saw momentous events from two countries thousands of miles from each other. For the United States, it was the signing of the Declaration of Independence. For Norway, it was participating in the first organized biathlon competition. 85 years later, the Trysil Rifle and Ski Club were formed. This is the world’s first known ski club that aimed to promote national defense on a local level.

A Man Named Oscar

Frantz Oscar Wergeland would inherit the same talents from his relatives. Born in Christianssand, Norway on November 17, 1815, Oscar was a military officer, cartographer, and most importantly, a pioneer of skiing. 

As a cartographer, he worked for the Norwegian Mapping and Cadastre Authority for 11 years. As a military officer and a skiing pioneer, he wrote a book in 1865 that made skiing and shooting into an official military drill. 

This idea eventually became the foundation of forming ski troops as a military division in European countries such as Russia, Germany, Finland, Italy, and France. The United States eventually followed suit a couple of decades later.

World War I soldiers wearing skis in the snow
Italian Troops Skiing in White Uniforms As They Advanced in the Austrian Lines During World War I

Ski Warfare

On November 30, 1939, the Russo-Finnish War (also known as the “Winter War”) pitted the Soviet Union against Finland to conclude the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Armed with massive artillery coupled with an equally massive army, the Soviets attacked Finland on several fronts. 

The tide of the war was decided when the Soviet Union finally managed to breach the Mannerheim Line stronghold. This defensive fortification line was built by Finland to delay, rather than thwart, the invasion of the Soviets. Although the battle was lost for the Scandinavian nation, the Finnish demonstrated their unparalleled skiing skills that inflicted serious damages to the Red Army, much to the Russians’ chagrin. 

As World War II continued, countries emulated the Finns’ success in ski warfare. The United States has its own winter unit in the form of the 10th Mountain Division. These troops are trained to fight in the mountainous and intense arctic conditions with the mountains of Colorado and Washington State as their training grounds. The division was deactivated after the war, only to be reactivated in 1985.

Biathlon in the Olympics

In 1924, the first Winter Olympics held in Chamonix, France included biathlon as a demonstration event. Back then, it was called “military patrol” and the sport continued to become a part of the Winter Games, albeit on a demonstration status, in 1928 and 1936. 

The 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland saw the last time that military patrol was demonstrated. That same year, the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne et Biathlon (UIMPB) was founded to standardize the rules for biathlon and pentathlon.

As the sport grew in popularity, biathlon eventually became known to the civilians. People hosted several competitions that paved the way for the Olympics committee to recognize biathlon as part of the official games. 

It made its debut at the 1960 Squaw Valley Games with the men’s 20 km individual event. Since then, new events have been added to the games with the mixed relay being the most recent addition.

Biathlon Today

Today, biathlon has become one of the most highly-anticipated events at the games. As the days grow closer to the Winter Olympics, spectators will surely be keeping a close eye on two countries that have always dominated the event: Germany and Norway. With a capacity of 6,000 people, the National Biathlon Center will bear witness as fans of the sport anxiously await who will bag the gold this time.

Johannes aiming his rifle for a Biathlon
Johannes Thingnes Boe (NOR) during the relay race at IBU World Cup Biathlon 2019 in Ruhpolding, Germany.

Familiar faces and names such as Johannes Thingnes Boe in the men’s division and Tiril Eckhoff in the women’s division will soon grace the courses in China with their skiing prowess and exceptional marksmanship. Unsurprisingly, these top names in biathlon are both from Norway.

That being said, the country’s consistent domination in the world of biathlon is only a clear testament to the Norwegian’s strong ties to their roots and tradition.

From the headgears that the athletes wear to the addition of new and more challenging events, the sport of biathlon has seen a lot of changes in the past few years. But there is one thing that will always be left unchanged: the biathlon that we know today will always stay true to its military origins.

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