With the Winter Olympics rapidly approaching, the question of what is a biathlon is a pretty common one. The answer is simple: It’s a sporting event that combines skiing and shooting. But there’s also a bit more to it than that.
At its most basic level, a biathlon includes two events. According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), it comes from the Greek word meaning “two tests.” Compare that to other sports like the triathlon and the decathlon, which have three events and 10 events, respectively. In current Winter Games competitions, the biathlon refers specifically to cross-country skiing and rifle shooting.
If that seems like quite the combination, well, you aren’t wrong. Keep on reading for everything you need to know about the eccentric sports combination that is the biathlon.
What is a biathlon?
Like we’ve established, biathlon combines two very different sports, cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, into one race. Men and women each compete in five different formats with differing race distances and shooting segments, the latter of which can occur either in the standing or prone position. In the 2022 Winter Olympics, there’s also a mixed-team relay event, totaling 11 biathlon events overall.
As the New York Times reports, biathlon requires two quite different skill sets: endurance, to get through the grueling cross-country ski aspect; and precision, to target-shoot with accuracy. Athletes must have solid physiological control to switch between the two sports as quickly as possible. In order to shoot accurately, athletes must stabilize their bodies and breathing after the high-aerobic skiing segments. During the cross-country portions of the race, their heart rates can spike to 180 beats per minute (bpm), but for shooting, their heart rates need to be near 140 bpm.
How do you win at biathlon?
Biathlon is a timed event where the quickest finish means victory. In biathlon, athletes race on cross-country skis around a closed course while carrying a rifle slung on their backs. For women, there are five separate events each at different distances including a 7.5K sprint, 10K pursuit, 15K individual, 12.5K mass start, and 24K relay. During the cross-country race, the athletes stop at designated areas to shoot at targets, while either standing or lying on their stomach. The number of shooting areas varies depending on the distance (for instance, in the 7.5K sprint, athletes only stop to shoot twice, but in the 15K, there are a total of four shooting segments).
Unlike a typical race, though, it’s not all about being fast: Accuracy matters as well. Athletes only have a set number of bullets depending on the event and they are penalized for missing targets with either a penalty lap around a 150-meter loop, or a one-minute penalty added to their total time. The person with the quickest time wins.
What’s the difference between winter biathlon and summer biathlon?
According to Team USA, summer biathlon combines rifle marksmanship with running or roller skating. Summer biathlon is not currently included in the Olympics, but there are world and national championship events in that discipline.
What is biathlon in the Paralympics?
Biathlon is one of the six sports that will be held at the 2022 Paralympic Games, joining alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, ice hockey, and wheelchair curling. (In the Paralympics, both biathlon and cross-country skiing fall under the umbrella of Nordic skiing.) Male and female Paralympic athletes compete in one of three categories—sitting, standing, or visually impaired—either in sprint, middle distance, or long distance events. Total distance ranges from six to 15K, and races include two to four shooting rounds. Athletes with visual impairments wear headphones that use acoustic signals to center their rifle at the target.
When did biathlon become an Olympic sport?
In 1960, biathlon made its Olympic debut at the Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California, with a men’s race, and has appeared on the Olympic program ever since. Women’s biathlon joined the schedule in 1992. Over the years, additional events of varying distances and shooting segments have been added, bringing us to the 11 total biathlon events that will go on at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.