Biathlon is a sport that combines competitive, free-technique movement and marksmanship. The word biathlon is of Greek origin and means "two tests." Several other competition forms of movement and shooting, such as ski archery, snowshoe biathlon, running and shooting, and mountain bike biathlon, are also normally included in the general category of biathlon. However, by far the most common form of biathlon is the cross-country skiing and small-bore rifle marksmanship competition. It is this latter type of biathlon that is an Olympic Games event.
The combination of two very contradictory disciplines, skiing and shooting, in the same competition confronts an athlete with a very demanding challenge. Cross-country racing requires intense, full-out physical exertion over an extended period of time, while shooting demands extremely fine control and stability. When athletes arrive at the shooting range they have to shoot at a very small target with a racing heartbeat and heaving chest because the clock is running even while they are shooting.
The combination of skiing and shooting used in the sport today is founded on a tradition of hunting that goes back over 4000 years. Petroglyphs found in Norway depict hunters with spears travelling on skis in pursuit of game. Written descriptions of hunting on skis can be traced back to 400 BC and the Roman poet Virgil. The sport's military uses have been subsequently noted by generals, writers, geographers and historians such as Xenophon, Strabo, Arrian, Theophanes, Prokopius and Arcruni, who described battles of warriors equipped with skis. Gradually, the techniques needed for survival and combat developed into contests of skill.
The first recorded biathlon race was organized near the border between Sweden and Norway in 1767, but regular competitions did not take hold until the early 20th century. As training for defence purposes, biathlon grew in popularity among military units, especially in Scandinavia. Known as the "military patrol," it was contested at the first Olympic Winter Games at Chamonix, France, in 1924. The sport remained on the Olympic program until 1948, when post-war sentiments caused it to be dropped.
During the 1950s, Swedish members of the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM) advanced the cause of biathlon. At the meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) held in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1957, the UIPM presented a motion concerning the introduction of "Individual Biathlon" as an official event in the Olympic Winter Games. The motion was approved and ratified one year later at the IOC meeting in Tokyo, Japan. Thus, biathlon was re-introduced to the Olympics at Squaw Valley, US, in 1960 and has remained ever since. The first Olympic gold medal for an individual biathlon race was presented to Klas Lestander from Sweden.
The first world championships for men were held in 1958 at Saalfelden, Austria, under the auspices of the UIPMB (Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne et Biathlon). It was an individual 20-km event using full-bore rifles. Five shots were taken from each of 4 shooting ramps with target distances of 100 m (standing), 150 m, 200 m and 250 m (prone). For each miss, a 2-minute penalty was added to the skiing time. Later, the shooting distances were standardized to 150 m for both prone and standing. The penalty system was also changed so that there was a non-penalty bulls-eye (125 mm for prone, 350 mm for standing), a one-minute penalty zone to a diameter of 250 mm for prone and 450 mm for standing, and a 2-minute penalty zone beyond these diameters. Little changed in the 20-km individual event until the introduction of the small-bore rifle.
In 1972 the UIPMB decided to change the calibre of rifles used at the World Junior Championships in order to gain experience with new rules. The reasons for the change included the high cost of ammunition, the size and power of the rifles, noise and safety issues, and the difficulty of obtaining gun licences. In 1976, at the Biathlon Congress in Seefeld, Austria, a proposal for the official introduction of the small-bore, .22 calibre rifle was approved. Two years later in Hochfilzen, Austria, the small-bore rifles were used for the first time in world championships, a development that dramatically changed the sport of biathlon. As a consequence, the acceptance and popularity of biathlon grew rapidly. World championships in 1978 doubled in size to 28 participating nations, and in that same year a 5-stop World Cup tour was established for senior men. Currently, the International Biathlon Union (IBU) boasts 66 member nations from 5 continents. There are over 30 nations competing in the 9-event World Cup tour and more than 40 attend world championships and the Olympic Winter Games.
Following the change to small-bore rifles, interest in biathlon among women and girls began to rise. By 1982, the European Cup was established for women. This competitive tour followed the Men's World Cup throughout Europe. In 1986, by which time competitors from 3 continents had joined the tour, the events were elevated to the status of world cups. Today, 120 women from 30 countries vie for the coveted title of World Cup Champion.
World championships for women were inaugurated in 1984 as part of the World Junior Championships for men. Not until 1989 did women gain their rightful place at the combined men's and women's world championships. That year, the World Junior Championships were opened for the first time to junior women. Despite the number of female competitors, the International Olympic Committee did not include women in the Olympic Winter Games biathlon program until 1992. In Albertville, France, the first Olympic gold medals for women's biathlon were presented to Antje Misersky of Germany in the individual event and Anfissa Retzova of Russia in the sprint.
In international events there are 4 classes of competitors: men, women, junior men and junior women. There are 6 international types of competitions: individual, sprint, pursuit, mass start, relay and team, of which 4 are in the program of the Olympic Winter Games - team and mass start are not included in the Olympic Games. In a biathlon competition the biathlete skis distances varying from 7.5 to 20 km and stops at the shooting range to shoot 2 or 4 times, with both the distance and number of shooting bouts depending on the type of competition in question. The shooting distance is always 50 m and 5 rounds are fired in each bout at 5 targets, except for in the relay competition, in which the competitor has 3 spare rounds for each bout. There are 2 shooting positions, prone and standing, which are done in a sequence depending on the competition. Target diameters are 115 mm for standing and 45 mm for prone. During the entire competition, from start to finish, the clock is running for the competitor - there is no time-out for shooting. Penalties for missed targets are imposed either as one minute of added time per target for the individual competition or as a 150-m penalty loop - done immediately after each bout of shooting - for all other competitions.
The competitor starts at the start line, skis one trail loop (length depending on the competition), comes to the range and shoots, skis another loop, shoots, and so on, and then finishes with a ski loop to the finish line after the last bout of shooting. For the individual and sprint competitions, starts are done with one competitor at a time with a 30-second or one-minute interval. In a pursuit competition, starts are based on time intervals from the qualifying competition, and for the mass start all competitors start together simultaneously. In the relay competition the first members of all teams start simultaneously in a mass start, and after completing their part, tag the next member to start them on their way. For team competitions, teams start with all members as a group, with one minute between teams. In principle, throughout the competition the biathletes are responsible for their own actions, such as selecting a target in the individual and sprint competitions (assigned in the relay), and for counting the number of missed plates on their targets and then skiing the correct number of penalty loops. However, they must always follow the stipulations of the competition rules.
Biathlon in Canada
In Canada, the sport of biathlon began under the auspices of the Canadian Armed Forces. In 1968, represented by an all-military team at Grenoble, France, Canada participated for the first time in an Olympic biathlon competition. Unfortunately, the sport declined in popularity. National championships, which had been held throughout the 1960s, were abandoned. It was not until 1978 and the rule changes regarding rifle calibre that biathlon enjoyed a resurgence in Canada. Under the auspices of the Biathlon Discipline of the Canadian Ski Association (which became incorporated independently as Biathlon Canada in 1985) Canadian championships began being staged again and have included women since 1980.
One of the mandates of the national organization is to develop a national team and prepare it for international competition. Canada began sending teams to compete at the world level in 1982. By the end of the decade Canadian athletes were beginning to post excellent results. In 1986 Lise Meloche achieved 4 top-10 placings in world cup and world championship events, and Charles Plamondon was the first Canadian man to place in the top 20 at world championships. In the 1990s, the world began to take notice of Canadian biathletes when Myriam Bédard won Canada's first-ever World Cup medal (silver) in Walchsee, Austria, in 1990 and when Steve Cyr placed 8th in the Olympic sprint event in Albertville, France, in 1992. Bédard continued to storm the world rankings and finished 2nd overall in World Cup points in 1991-92. Demonstrating the depth of her ability, not only has Bédard repeated this feat, but also won an Olympic bronze medal in 1992 at Albertville, France, Canada's first Olympic medal in Nordic competitions. In 1992-93 Bédard won a string of world cup medals, finishing 2nd overall. She also won 2 medals at the world championships in Borovetz, Bulgaria, including the gold medal in the 7.5 km sprint. On February 18, at the Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, Bédard won the gold medal for Canada in the 15 km individual event. Five days later she won gold a second time to accomplish what has never been achieved by any Canadian woman.
Since the Olympics in Lillehammer, Canadian results have been mixed at best. Some athletes have garnered world cup points. Along with veterans Myriam Bédard, Glenn Rupertus and Steve Cyr, they include Martine Albert and Tuppy Collard. Still, Canadian biathletes were unable to achieve top-10 placings at the 2 Olympic Games that followed Lillehammer - Nagano in 1998 and Salt Lake in 2002.
Canadians did not take the top spots at the 2005 World Championships prior to the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. It was the German Alexander Wolf who took the gold at the championship. At the Olympic Games in Turin it was again a German, Sven Fischer, who won the gold medal. The silver and bronze medals went to Norwegian athletes Halvard Hanevold and Frode Andresen. Canadian David Leoni from Alberta was 43rd.The 2008 men's biathlon World Championship in Austria was also won by Norwegians. Lars Berger won the gold and Alexander Os won the silver medal, while the bronze medal went to Russia's Dmitri Yaroshenko. Russian athletes Svetlana Sleptsova and Ekaterina Iourieva won the gold and silver medals for women at the 2008 World Championships, and Ukrainian Vita Semerenko won the bronze medal.