By James A. Swan, “Media Watch” columnist for North American Hunter magazine.
January 26-27, 2002
At the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, what event drew the largest crowd? Ski-jumping? Downhill or giant slalom? No: the biathlon.
More than 500,000 wildly cheering spectators turned out during the five days of competition, filling the 80,000-seat stadium and spilling over into the woods. Cowbells, I'm told, are the most popular way to cheer on biathletes.
In northern Europe, the winter biathlon is more popular than the Super Bowl. Between December and March, World Cup biathlon matches draw the largest television audiences of any winter sport in Europe. The sport is, however, less popular in the United States, which may explain why Soldier Hollow — which is to be the site of the winter biathlon in Salt Lake City — can handle a crowd of only 20,000. The Soldier Hollow facilities are brand-new; perhaps they signal a change in U.S. attitudes toward the biathlon.
Over 100 countries competed in some two dozen Olympic weapons sports — such as biathlon, pentathlon, skeet, trap, pistol, rifle, archery, and fencing — in the summer 2000 Olympic Games. The biathlon is the only winter Olympic shooting sport, as well as being the only sport to appear in both summer and winter Olympics.
In case you're not sure just what sport I'm talking about, the biathlon is a cross-country race where contestants periodically stop to fire .22 rifles at targets 50 meters distant. Winter biathletes use cross-country skis to traverse the course, while the summer competitors are on foot, but the sport is essentially the same. The winner is determined by the fastest time. Accuracy in shooting definitely counts (it's factored in by penalties for misses). In the Winter Olympics, for each miss of a target the biathele must ski an extra 150-yard penalty lap before returning to the course.
The biathlon is an intense sport requiring extraordinary skills. After several kilometers of flat-out skiing, shooters unshoulder their bolt-action .22 rifles without optical sights, each of which hold five shots, and take one of two positions to fire. From the standing position, the targets are 3"-diameter metal discs. The prone-position targets are about the size of a half-dollar.
The physical and mental skills of a biathlete are exceptional. You must go flat out in the cross-country, and then be able to suddenly compose yourself and focus in to shoot within seconds. "It's like climbing up 25 flights of stairs and then threading a needle five times, without missing the hole," U.S. biathlon team member Shaun Marshall-Pryde told me, as I tried my hand at mini-course he and his fiancée, Debbie Schultz, laid out for journalists at a recent seminar held by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. For the record, I hit more targets than any of those other key-pushers, but as the oldest contestant I also had a handicap I couldn't overcome. Now that I know what it's all about, I'll be faster next time. Honest.
The first winter biathlon contest was held in 1767, between Swedish and Norwegian border patrols. It entered the Winter Olympics as a demonstration in 1924, but did not become a regular event until 1960.
This year, there are four different races for men and four for women, with the relay being the only team event. The Russians held the team honors for the first six Winter Games. The Germans have taken the Gold in the last three.
This is not a sport where any country can field a team (in the Lillehammer games, the lone skier competing from Egypt had trouble standing up on his skis). There are 220 biatheles established for the upcoming games, 112 men and 108 women. Nations qualify for the event on the basis of their competitors' performance in World Cup events and the World Championships. To be eligible, you must be in either the top 20 percent of biatheletes in World Cup standing, or the top half in the World Junior championships. Each country can enter up to four athletes per event. The U.S. will field a team of eight — four men and four women. All are from either Alaska or northern states that get a lot of snow.
Men and women each have four events: the sprint (men's 10 km, women's 7.5 km), with two stops to shoot; the pursuit (men's 12.5 km, women's 10 km), with four stops; the individual, which is like a marathon (men's 20 km, women's 15 km), with four stops; and the team relay, with four people each traveling 7.5 km and shooting at two stops.
You can learn more about the upcoming biathlon events through the Olympics website. I found it fascinating that while the site describes the type of skis biathletes use (which are shorter than regular cross-country skis), and about their clothing, nothing is said about their rifles. For the record, according to Jerry Kokesh, development director of the U.S. Biathlon Association, about 95 percent of Olympic biathlon rifles are made in Germany by Anschutz. They cost about $2100; each competitor will pay another $500-$600 to have the stock customized.
Despite the fact that shooting sports are global, enormously popular, and among the safest of all competitive sports, the U.S. press tends to avoid firearms sports, as if they didn't exist. It's time for a change, if for no other reason than the biathlon is rapidly growing in popularity in North America. Some $12 million has recently been invested in brand-new biathlon facilities in the U.S., in addition to the $10 million spent building the Soldier Hollow facility in Salt Lake City.
Currently the NCAA does not sanction the sport, so the only collegiate biathlon team is the 10 athletes at the U.S. Olympic Education Center at North Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan. There are, however, 1000 members of the U.S. Biathlon Association, and according to Jerry Kokesh, 60 men and 25 men from that group tried out for this year's U.S. Olympic squad. Kokesh says that clubs and youth teams and leagues are spring up all across the country.
The U.S. is a long shot for medals this year. But given the growing interest in the biathlon, it should not be long before cowbells may be shaking like crazy for some U.S. biathletes, as they take to the podium to receive their gold medals for this most challenging and exciting sport.
This is a very cool event. ###If I had to choose an Olympic level winter event to participate in, it would have to be biathlon. ###
Watch those guys (and ladies) cross-country ski around the course, then take a position, shoot their targets, and take off again. ###All the while the competition breathing down their necks and the noise of the crowd as they come into the shooting stations... ###awesome. ###
its almost amazing that this sport is more popular in europe where gun ownership is almost non-existant in most countries. but in the US where were hold the 2nd dear and gun sports are popular the biathlon and other olympic shooting sports is NEVER seen.
i guess thats what we get with a liberal media.
Athough it's difficult toown firearms in Europe the shooting sports are indeed popular. Pretty much every town in Germany has a Schutzen or Jagd Verein (shooting or hunting club) Local competetions are held fairly frequently. The majority of competition is air rifle or smallbore types of competition. Each club typically has a schutzenfest which has serious competition and fun competitons for the kids. My cousin was Schutzenkoenigen (shooting queen) this past year which is chosen by the person hitting the closest to the center of a target.
It may be more difficult to own a firearm in Europe but IMO the gunowners are better trained and educated in their weaponcraft.