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All About the Olympic Biathlon

History, Events, Rules, and Equipment


Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway competes in the men's 10km biathlon sprint during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway competes in the men's 10km biathlon sprint during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
History of the Biathlon

The Olympic Biathlon, as its name suggests, consists of two sports - and they are cross-country snow skiing and rifle shooting. It's generally accepted that this sport originated in Scandinavia, developing from the activities of hunters who used skis to negotiate snowy winter woods while carrying rifles with which to shoot their game. Skiing and rifles have also been combined for military use, as ski-wearing troops can negotiate terrain that vehicles (or folks on foot) cannot.

As often happens when athletes get together, competition arose regarding who was the fastest skier and/or the most accurate rifleman, and formal events were arranged to decide these matters. Precursors to modern biathlon events were staged in 1776 in Norway. The year 1912 marked the first skiing/riflery event that we'd recognize alongside the modern Olympic event.

The first standardized rules for biathlon came in 1948 with the founding of Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne et Biathlon (UIPMB), and by 1998 such rules became the purview of the International Biathlon Union (IBU) when it split from the UIPMB.

Biathlon was officially adopted as an Olympic event in 1948, and the first women's Olympic biathlon took place in 1992.

Biathlon Events

Olympic biathlon events are varied, and some explanation of each can be found below. In all of them, athletes alternate between cross-country snow skiing and shooting rifles at targets.


There are both men's (10 km) and women's (7.5 km) Olympic sprint biathlon events. Competitors start at intervals, usually 30 seconds apart, and must complete three laps. In men's sprint events, the first rifle shooting stage comes at around the 3 km mark, and shooting (5 rounds) is done in the prone position. Then after another 6.5 km or so, 5 rounds are fired from a standing position. Shooters may select any slot at the firing line from which to shoot.

For each miss, a 150m penalty lap must be skied, which may add 23 seconds or so. Total time varies, of course (and is the basis of determining winners and rankings), but an average for strong competitors is around 23 minutes.


Men's pursuit is 12.5 km, and women's is 10 km - both done in five equal laps. Starting intervals in this event are based on time differentials from the sprint. Usually, the top 60 competitors in the sprint competition qualify to compete in pursuit.

Shooting must be done in the shooting slot that corresponds with each athlete's position in the race, e.g. the leader shoots from slot 1, the second-place skier from slot 2, and so on. Players fire four times (5 rounds each time) in pursuit; the first two in the prone position, and the last two standing. For each miss, a 150m penalty lap must be skied.

In pursuit, winners and rankings are determined by the order in which the competitors cross the finish line.


This is the original biathlon event. Each skier must complete five laps, totaling 20 km for men and 15 km for women. At the firing range, each shooter selects his or her own shooting slot and proceeds to fire. Each miss results in a one-minute penalty, added to the total time upon the race's completion.

Shooting positions rotate in the individual event: prone, standing, prone, standing, and fire five rounds each time. Total race time, including penalties for missed targets, determines winners and rankings.

Mass Start

Women ski 12.5 km and men ski 15 km in this competition, which is done in five laps. It is very similar to Pursuit, but is limited to the top 30 competitors, and they all start racing at the same time. Shooting range slot in the first bout is determined by the player's assigned number; in the following three rounds of shooting, your ranking in the race determines which firing station you must use.

Five rounds are fired each at firing range stop, and each miss incurs a 150m penalty lap. Winners and ranking are determined by the order in which the competitors cross the finish line. Anyone who is lapped in mass start is immediately withdrawn from the race.


Relay events (men: 4x7.5 km; women: 4x6 km) are raced by teams of four. Each team member will ski one leg, consisting of three laps and two rounds of shooting. To complete each leg, the skier must touch his or her team's next skier, who will then proceed to complete the next leg. The fourth team member completes his or her leg by crossing the finish line.

The firing station for the players' first shooting session for the first leg is determined by the player's assigned number; in the following rounds of shooting, the team's ranking in the race determines which firing station must be used.

The shooting portion of the relay event is unique, in that each shooter is allowed eight rounds of ammo per each five-target stop at the range. The first five shots will be loaded in the gun's magazine. If any of the five targets remain after those five are fired, the shooter must mnually load and fire each of the remaining three rounds until all the targets have been hit, or all eight rounds have been fired.

If, after firing all eight shots, there are still targets which have not been hit, players must complete one 150m penalty lap for each missed target. The team of the first racer to cross the finish line is the winner.

More Details:

All Olympic biathlon shooting is done at a range of 50 meters. Targets are black circles, which turn white when hit.

Shooting in the prone position is accomplished by the shooter lying on his or her belly and propping up on the elbows to take the shots. Target diameter is only 4.5 cm, which is less than 2 inches.

Shooting in the standing position means firing at targets 11.5 cm (a little bigger than 4.5 inches) in diameter while standing up. Shooting accurately while standing is more difficult than doing so while prone.

Players are always fighting time in all biathlon events; the clock is always running.

The rifles used are specialized bolt action magazine-fed rifles, and may be of either the turnbolt of straight-pull type. Caliber is 22 long rifle (LR), and magazines are of the removable box type.

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