BIATHLON

BULLETS IN THE SNOW

Biathlon is cross-country skiing with a twist, namely .22-calibre rifles

Brian D. Johnson February 2 1988
BIATHLON

BULLETS IN THE SNOW

Biathlon is cross-country skiing with a twist, namely .22-calibre rifles

Brian D. Johnson February 2 1988

BULLETS IN THE SNOW

BIATHLON

Biathlon is cross-country skiing with a twist, namely .22-calibre rifles

Biathlon is one of the strangest sports in Olympic competition.

With a .22-calibre rifle strapped to his back, the competitor races around a hilly course on a pair of cross-country skis. After the first lap he stops, unslings his rifle and lies down in the snow. Struggling to relax a pounding heart, he fires in rapid succession at five small targets from a distance of 50 m. He has to hit each one, and then get back on his feet to race again. One lap later he stops to fire at five slightly larger targets from a standing position. With each loop of the circuit he alternates between shooting lying down and standing up.

Judges sit in a bunker behind the targets with bullets whizzing over their heads. “The key is to ski and shoot well on the same day,” says Canadian competitor Charles Plamondon. “They are totally antagonistic activities. After you push your body very hard, you have only got 30 seconds to calm down.”

Although there is an element of egg-andspoon-race absurdity to the sport, there is a compelling history to biathlon. Skiing marksmen have formed the front lines of Nordic infantry for the past two centuries. Biathlon began as a pragmatic military exercise, and the name it bore on its Olympic debut in 1924 was “military patrol.” Disentangling the sport from its strong identification with war has been a slow process. After the Second World War it was dropped from the Olympics, reappearing under the name of biathlon in 1960. In 1978 the weapons were scaled down to .22calibre rifles specifically designed for the sport. Now, biathlon is beginning to take on an identity all its own as cross-country skiing with a twist.

At the Calgary Winter Olympics, the Sovi-

ets are expected to dominate the competition. During the Second World War, Nordic countries used soldiers on skis to thwart Soviet invasion, and the Soviets took the lesson to heart: more than 100,000 biathletes are now active in the Soviet Union. In 1986 the Soviet Union’s Valeri Medvetsev was named world champion, capturing gold medals in all three events-20-km, 10-km and relay. But last year he lost to East Germany’s Frank-Peter Roetsch. The steep Olympic course at Canmore presents a heady challenge to Europe’s biathletes. Says Roetsch: “We have not anything in our country as demanding as this course.”

While Roetsch and Medvetsev are the favorites at Calgary, North American biathletes are finally beginning to make their mark. Last year Colorado competitor Josh Thompson won a silver medal in the 20-km race at the world championships. Thompson grew up on skis but did not try biathlon until he was 20. “The most difficult thing was learning how to shoot,” says Thompson. “I didn’t really have

any experience other than shooting rats at the dump.” Thompson dissociates himself from the military traditions of biathlon. “I never feel I’m using a deadly weapon,” he adds. “It’s only a tool used in the pursuit of excellence.”

Shooting the dots makes biathlon a far more nerveracking sport than simple cross-country skiing. The competitor has a maximum of eight bullets to hit five targets, with a five-bullet magazine already loaded in his rifle. If he needs more than five, he must load each extra bullet manually. And if he has not hit all five targets after firing eight times, he must either ski a 150-m penalty loop for each missed target or suffer a time penalty. “You can get really radical mood shifts,” says Thompson. “If you miss all your targets, you’re going to be really pissed at yourself. But you still have to ski just like you shot a clean round.”

Though its profile is rising, biathlon remains a largely unknown sport in North America. The sight of a biathlete training in the streets can have a bewildering effect on bystanders. Last summer Plamondon rollerskied around his neighborhood in St-Augustin, 20 km west of Quebec City, with a rifle strapped to his back. Then he would stop and pretend to shoot at a target taped to his door. To reassure his neighbors, Plamondon obtained official permission from the police and took out an advertisement in the local paper. The ad showed a picture of the biathlete with the explanatory caption “I am not a terrorist.” At least at the Winter Olympics, as Plamondon guns for gold, there is little danger that his motives will be misinterpreted.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

PEGGY WEDDELL