Rise and Fire: Biathlon: the great unknown

February 13, 2014

I can’t ski. My trips down most beginner-level mountains involve more time spent facedown in the snow than time spent actually moving. I also cannot shoot a gun. I blame my suburban lifestyle and dislike of loud noises for that one. At this year’s 2014 Olympic games in Sochi, Russia, however, there exists an elite group of athletes, who are very comfortable with both of these activities. They are the Olympic biathletes, who are in the most fascinating event at the games that you probably have never heard of.

Combining cross-country skiing with rifle shooting, it’s an athletic concept foreign to most Americans mainly because someone else invented it. Norway inadvertently created the sport in the late 1800s when it used the components of the biathlon as an alternative military training exercise. By the early 1900s, the biathlon had become a full-fledged sport, cementing itself as an official Olympic event by the 1960 games.

In the event, athletes cross-country ski through a trail system where, along the way, they encounter a series of targets to shoot at, in both the upright and prone position.A punishment, commonly additional distance to ski or a time penalty, is enforced for each target missed. There are numerous types of events, including short and long distances and relays, similar to track and field.

So, why should you care about the biathlon? First off, the intensity of the sport is incredible. Imagine combining the heart-stopping pace of the 100-meter dash with the gut-wrenching suspense of a gymnastics routine. Biathletes glide through the trail at a ferocious pace, only to switch gears completely, steadying their bodies to strike a target with a diameter of one and a half inches from 160 feet away. Each race’s final moments are particularly enthralling. In a close race, the last rifle station is a dramatic scene, as biathletes must control their nerves behind the gun, knowing that a sprint to the finish is inevitable. One misfire can cost racers a medal.

Additionally, the general badass-ness of the biathletes’ appearance is absolutely worth a look. Sporting sleek uniforms so they can be aerodynamic, biathletes look like madmen, tearing through the snow with long skis, flailing ski poles … oh and a rifle strapped to their backs. This Olympic event is the closest you will get to feeling like you’re watching a video game happen live.

Another thing to consider about the biathlon is, to be frank, how generally horrible Americans are at it, a rare occurrence for a nation proud of its athletic prowess. American men and women have medaled a total of one time in either the annual World Championships or the Winter Olympic Games. American Tim Burke possesses the sole medal, after he captured silver in last year’s World Championships. History could be in the making in Sochi this year, as Burke presumably has the best chance to break the U.S’s 54-year Olympic medal drought.

Perhaps the biggest reason to become a fan of the biathlon, however,  is that the athletes that are really good at it have jaw-dropping abilities. From what I can gather, criteria for being skilled include, but are not limited to: being German, Norwegian, or Russian, having blonde hair, looking like a movie star, and of course being able to hit miniscule targets from half a football field away.

Perhaps the most famous biathlete of all time, who coincidentally meets all of the above criteria, is still competing today. Ole Einar Bjørndalen, this year’s gold medalist in the Men’s Sprint, hails from Norway and shares the record for most overall medals won in Winter Olympic history, and will likely win his record-breaking thirteenth by the end of the Sochi games. Biathlon fans really like Ole Einar, so if you are new to the sport, start with him.

If any of this sounds appealing, I encourage you to give the biathlon a try. We tend to love the events American athletes excel at, but we forget about the captivating sports in which other nations dominate.

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