The Biathlon Sprint: Shooting’s the Thing

Biathlon 20

There were flags of many different nations: Norway, Japan, Russia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, France and many others. And despite the fact that the biggest flag I saw at the Biathlon Men’s 10k Sprint during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics was an American flag, Team USA has never medaled in a biathlon event. In fact, it is the only winter sport Americans have been shut out of.

This is a sport of the Europeans, with its roots deep in the ice and snow of Norway, where Norwegian soldiers since the 18th century would stay in shape by competing in a combined cross-country skiing and rifle shooting contest. While the biathlon appeared at the first Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix France in 1924, it didn’t become an official event for men until 1960, and then for women until 1992.

 

Alpensia biathlon venue
Alpensia Biathlon Centre Course

 

There are several Olympic types of biathlon events: the individual, the sprint, the pursuit, the mass start and the relay. At the Alpensia Biathlon Center on Sunday, February 11, I saw the Men’s 10k sprint event. At -11 degrees Centigrade, it was bitingly cold. But the enthusiasm and constant noise of the spectators kept the biathlon arena warm and engaging.

Still, I had no idea what was going on. Everyone around me was following their countrymen in the event. I could not for the life of me tell what was happening, other than the skiing in front of me and the shooting I could see on the screen. It must be like a person who has never seen an American football game from a stadium seat trying to understand what is happening on the field in front of them.

But at least a football novice could see the field and the direction the offense was going in. Only after I got back home could I see the extensive track behind the arena where the competitors huffed and puffed their way over the hills and through the woods. Halfway through their trek, they stopped at the arena for two rounds of shooting, one standing and one prone (even to the ground). The shooting was viewable on the big screen and is a significant part of this competition, and yet I couldn’t tell exactly where the shooting was taking place.

 

Biathlon 21
Vancouver gold medalist Tarjei Boe of Norway missing five times, adding another 750 meters to his race.

 

Clearly, when you’ve been pushing hard aerobically on the skis, settling yourself down for a good shot is a challenge. I imagine that calming your heartrate and mind down enough to shoot accurately is part of the challenge of this competition. And if you miss, it’s not good. With every shot you are off target in the sprint, you have to ski a penalty loop of 150 meters, which of course, adds to your time. Miss two or three shots, and your time continues to inflate.

As Finnish veteran biathlete and competitor in PyeongChang, Kaisa Makarainen, noted in this interview:

Even though you can have favourites, you never know what the result will be. You never know how the athletes will cope with the shooting, and then some of the best shooters are not so good on the skis, so it’s really dramatic.

So the skill and the variation in results comes from that moment between decision to fire and firing. And while you can have favorites in the biathlon sprint, (in this event, Martin Fourcade of France and Norwegian Johannes Thingnes Boe,) you can never really be sure who will win. The Germans in front of me were not the flag waving sort, one of them appearing a bit irritated with the large Russian flag that a fan a row ahead of him was waving.

But in the end, it was a German, Arndt Peiffer, who won the gold, Michal Krcmar of the Czech Republic who won the silver, and Dominik Windisch of Italy who took the bronze. The shooting proved decisive, as Peiffer and Krcmar were the only biathletes to hit all ten targets, and thus raced only 10 kilometers.

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Pre-show entertainment at the Alpensia Biathlon Centre. It’s -11 degrees centigrade and they’re dancing in mini-skirts.