What the Heck is the Biathlon?

If you’ve been watching the Winter Olympics, you’re bound to have come across that…well, distinctive sport known as the biathlon. No doubt a little head scratching followed, by musing of “What is this combination? Why skiing plus rifle shooting?” After a bit of research, this sports buff offers a little history.

The common mythos surrounding the biathlon features the Finns employing armed troops on skis to surprise either Russians in the Winter War of 1939-40 or Nazis in World War II, depending on the source. After the wars, in honor of the troops (500,000 Russians were killed in the Winter War, as opposed to one-tenth that many Finns), goes the story, the Finns decided to make it a sport.

As in nearly every other sport, extreme enthusiasts often want to place the origins of their beloved game in ancient times, and biathlon fans are no different. Some would-be historians place the game’s beginnings in the Neolithic Age, with rock paintings in Norway depicting bow-and-arrow armed hunters on wooden slats. Warfare of the twentieth-century Finnish kind in earlier forms was mentioned in works by Xenophon, Teophanes and others.

Governing body the International Biathlon Union sees the truth as somewhere in between. Though true that Finns did use this strategic warfare to great results, the IBU book of Biathlon genesis begins in 1767, pitting border guards from Sweden and Norway, evidence that this sort of warfare goes back to at least the 18th century. The sport grew to such popularity in Scandinavian and some northern European states that, in the first modern Olympics in 1924, a variation on today’s form biathlon was a demonstration sport. The wheels of Olympic progress ground slowly even back then, though: The Swedish proposed in 1949 to make the biathlon a full-on Olympic sport, but only entered the winter games in 1960; the first Biathlon World Championship had been held in 1958.

Though shooting (a feat of concentration and accuracy) and skiing (a heavy aerobic activity) seems a combination akin to bicycles and fish, the biathlon does require high skill. Indeed, the stark contrast between the two makes the athletic challenge one of the most unique in the whole of the games. Plus, there is a similar, even more bizarre combination in the summer games: The Pentathlon. Designed by modern Olympics creator Baron Pierre de Coubertin and introduced in 1912, the pentathlon involves equestrianism, swimming, running, shooting and fencing; the idea was to approximate military training of the early 20th century. Many know that the immortal Jim Thorpe took the gold medal that year, but did you know that U.S. pentathlete Patton – yes, that Patton – finished fifth, due to his astoundingly poor performance in the shooting event?

Yes, the biathlon does seem bizarre to American viewers, yet the IBU claims it is the most watched of all the Olympic sports in Europe. But just think about how American football appears to them�


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