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.

Biathlon 4
Pre-show entertainment at the Alpensia Biathlon Centre. It’s -11 degrees centigrade and they’re dancing in mini-skirts.


Margaret Murdock and Lanny Bassham
Margaret Murdock and Lanny Bassham


Men and women do not compete against each other in too many sporting events. There is mixed pair figure skating, and mixed pairs tennis, but pairs are competing against each other on equal ground, gender wise. However, until 1992, both men and women could compete against each other in Olympic shooting events.

Learning how to shoot from her father, and honing her skills as an instructor in the US Army, Margaret Murdock was always aiming to compete on the Olympic stage. Having just missed qualification for the Olympics in 1968, and then not being able to compete in 1972 with the birth of a child, Murdock won a spot on the US Olympic shooting team and was eager to finally face off against the best in the three-position small bore rifle event.

Murdock’s teammate, Lanny Bassham, was considered a favorite to win, but at the end of the first part of the competition, shooting at 50 meters while prone on the ground, Murdock was one point off the lead, while, Bassham and Germany, Werner Seibold, were another point behind them. In the second stage, called the offhand position, which in layman’s terms, is the standing position, Murdock again shot well, but was one point off the leader, Seibold. Bassham fell back, and was four points off the leader.

Margaret Thompson Murdock
Margaret Murdock

In the kneeling stage, the final part of the competition, the riflemen and riflewoman had to wait for the final scores to be posted. According to this account by William Parkerson, history had been made.

When the kneeling stage was completed, no one was sure where the frontrunners had finished, and a large crowd began to swell around the public scoreboard outside the range. The tension increased as score after score was posted, but none next to the names of any of the leaders. Finally Murdock’s mark appeared . . . an 1162.

After what seemed more like hours than minutes, Bassham’s score went up . . .1161. Margaret Murdock was mobbed immediately by well-wishers, including her parents, sister and her five-year-old son Brett, who wasn’t sure what to make of the cheering and the tears. Seibold’s score had yet to appear, and in fact it was the last mark to be posted. When the 1160 finally went up, a second round of congratulations appeared in order for the Kansas nursing student who had become the first woman to earn a shooting medal in Olympic history.

Unfortunately for Murdock, those results were not official. According to the director of the

From the book, “XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964_Asahi Shimbun”

I love this picture of Olympian, Laszlo Hammerl, the Hungarian who won a gold and bronze medals in the 1964 Summer Games. It is a picture of intense concentration – and he needed every ounce of it to win gold in the 50-meter rifle prone competition.

Hammerl’s competition from America was strong. Lones Wigger set a world record of 597 points, while Tommy Pool came close with a score of 596. But Hammerl, later in the day tied Wigger on points at 597, and one gold on a technical tie breaker related to the last 10 shots of the 60 shots required to be taken in a 75-minute limit.

Hammerl would also win bronze in the 50-meter rifle three positions in Tokyo, as well as silver in the 50-meter rifle prone in Mexico City in 1968.