Biathlon is a sport that combines cross-country ski racing with rifle marksmanship. Originating in Sweden as a hunting competition, the sport spread among European infantry troops and led to the initiation of international military ski races in 1908. The modern biathlon, an offspring of these events, emerged after World War II and made its first Olympic appearance in the 1960 Winter Games at Squaw Valley, Calif.
Standard equipment for the biathlon includes cross-country skis, poles, lightweight ski boots, and single-shot, bolt-action rifles. The course is 20 kilometers (km; about 12.5 miles) long, marked over terrain that is approximately one-third uphill, one-third downhill, and one-third level. Competitors engage in different races: individual (20 km for men; 15 km for women) with four shooting phases, about 4 km apart—half in prone position, half in standing; sprint (men, 10 km; women, 7.5 km), with two shooting phases; pursuit (men, 12.5 km; women, 10 km), with four shooting phases; mass start (men, 15 km; women, 12.5 km); and relay (men, 4 × 7.5 km; women, 4 × 7.5 km). The team event has been obsolete since 2004 at the World Cup level. The biathletes fires five shots with a non-automatic rifle at metal drop-down targets at a standard distance of 50 meters for each shooting phase. He or she uses a prone firing position on the first range, and then alternates between prone and standing. For each missed target, the athlete must ski one penalty loop (150 meters), have one minute added to the total skiing time, or (in relay) use an extra cartridge to finish off the target; only three extra cartridges are allowed for each round, and if there is a miss, then a penalty loop is called for.
The biathlon has both individual and relay team events (four athletes make up the relay team). The mixed relay is a recent variation of the event (two men and two women per team); the rules follow the same format as the single-sex relay. In the 7.5-km relay event, a racer must ski a 150-meter penalty loop for each missed target, after the allotted number of bullets allowed per target has been used.
The first modern biathlon competition in the United States was held at Camp Hale, Colo., in 1956. International competition is regulated by the International Biathlon Union; its American affiliate is the United States Biathlon Association. The main competition held annually in the United States is the North American Cup. Covering nine to ten competition weeks, the international Biathlon World Cup is held at several venues, from December to March; the highest overall point total determines the winner. The Winter Olympics and World Championship also count in the scoring system.
Summer biathlons generally replace skiing with a cross-country run and maintain rifle shooting; in an archery biathlon, a recurve bow replaces the rifle. The course can be run on trails, running tracks, or roads. Other summer competitions have been introduced: roller-ski, mountain bike, and orienteering biathlons.
The biathlon is a relatively new sports event that combines two athletic skills. At the first and third stops they shoot from a prone position at a target that is 25 cm (9.8 in) in circumference and has a 12.5-cm (4.9-in) bull’s-eye. The distance to the targets is 50 m (164 ft). For each failure to hit the target, 1 min is added to the contestant’s time, and for each shot in the outer ring, 1 min is added. The biathlon relay, for four teammates each traversing 7.5 km (4.7 mi), has slightly different rules and was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1968. At the 1980 Olympics a 10-km (6.2-mi) individual event was added to the agenda. Biathlon competition for women was added at the 1992 Olympics, at distances of 7.5 km, 15 km (9.3 mi), and a 4 x 7.5 km relay.
The summer biathlon consists of a 4,000-m (2½-mi) run and a 300-m (328-yd) swim. The Modern Pentathlon Association of Great Britain introduced this combination in 1968 to help future pentathlon contestants develop these skills early so they could later concentrate on fencing, riding, and shooting, the three other pentathlon skills. Senior men then adopted the biathlon as a separate event.