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Biathlon Explained

The Research Department has been bored out of its skull lately on account of staying home a lot to avoid the flu, and so, like everyone else, it’s been binge-watching the Olympics. It has discovered that winter sports can be boiled down to this: sliding on slippery surfaces.

Let’s face it, people who compete in winter sports are all doing variations on the theme of a controlled fall while sliding on something. Even curlers are sliding both themselves and their stones, but we’re not going to talk about curling because the Research Department’s friend Alexis, who is from Maine (the Curling State) has convinced it that curling is like frozen chess. We would hate to poke fun at something so erudite.

So the Research Department decided to go after the baffling biathlon. On first glance, it appears that the biathlete slides around on snow while carrying a gun. What could go wrong?

A second glance shows that this is indeed what’s happening, and once you know that, you kind of understand the sport. The biathlete skis around a track and periodically stops to shoot at things. He or she gets a 20 second penalty for every shot that misses the target. Seriously, who thinks this is a good idea?

The Norwegians, that’s who.

A highly suspect source traces the origins of the biathlon to a Norse god of skiing and hunting, but if we’re going to be historical, skiing happened after gods stopped specializing. The more likely scenario is that someone in Norway had quite a lot of glög and  said, “I know! Let’s ski through the woods and shoot stuff!” A bunch of other Norwegians said “ja!” and a sport was born.

Initially, of course, the idea was to ski cross-country and shoot any furry animals who happened to be about. The furry animals caught on pretty quickly and developed a pathological fear of skis, so in order to still have the excitement of carrying a loaded weapon while sliding around, the Norwegians started shooting at targets.

Oh, there’s all sorts of technicality, but it’s the kind of technicality built into a sport that involves real weapons (these are not pellet guns) and minimal friction. The guns are basically .22 rifles that weigh at least 3.5 kilograms (which is 7.7 pounds for those of us in the US who haven’t caught on to how easy it is to use the metric system). Each weapon carries several five-shot magazines, which aren’t inserted until the biathlete is at his or her shooting station, possibly because shooting oneself in the back of the head spoils the day for everybody.

In the early days, the danger factor was upped significantly by the way the skiers had to shoot at a target while on the move. Because record-keeping was only invented in 1940, we have no idea what the mortality rate was in these early events, but imagine everybody doing the Men’s Super Combined Downhill at the same time, all of them with loaded rifles, and you’ll have the idea.

In the middle of the 19th Century, there were clubs all over Scandinavia where men (of course) could gather to ski through the woods and hunt furry animals. This was so successful that it spread into other places in Europe, but it didn’t become an Olympic sport until 1960, and THIS was because nobody could agree on the rules. Some clubs used really heavy artillery, because nothing says peaceful winter woods like a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. Some thought pistols were perfectly okay, preferably .45s. Some thought carrying the ammunition separately from the weapon was a sissy way to operate and liked the uncertainty of whether Mr. Safety Catch was up to the job. It took a long time for the dust to settle, and even then, it was another twelve years before the caliber of weapon was standardized.

Women were allowed to shoot things from skis in the 1980s, possibly because they threatened to shoot things whether skiing or not. The 1980’s were the Decade of the Standardization of the Biathlon, a fact not many people know. The course settled down at 20 kilometers (about 12 miles), and the target distance at 50 meters (about 160 feet). People stopped shooting from anywhere and had to do standing and set shots. Presumably the mortality rate dropped.

So there you have it. Watch your DVRs of the biathlon with all the erudition of a curler. We’ll let you decide which kind.

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