Biathlon takes cross country skiing and elevates it with guns. It’s like dumping sugar on your cornflakes — taking something good for you and making it dangerous and delicious and sometimes indigestible. Biathlon is the best Olympic sport. This is not up for debate.
And oddly, for an event that the NRA might sanction, the United States is pretty bad at it. Biathlon is the only Winter Olympic event that the U.S. has never medaled in. It came close in Sochi when Lowell Bailey finished eighth in the men’s 20k. He would have finished third, but he missed one shot out of 20, which means that the difference between relative obscurity and eternal glory was about a half centimeter, thus prolonging Team USA’s unceasing torment and embarrassment.
OK, that’s a little heavy. The truth is biathlon was invented in Scandinavia and tends to be dominated by those countries as well as Germany, which has actually won the most Olympic medals in the sport — 45 total, of which 16 have been gold. It is a meticulous sport that stands out among the Winter Olympics’ various forms of sliding that the U.S. tends to perform better at. Biathlon simply hasn’t been in the American bloodstream for very long.
The United States has a good chance to break its medal drought, however. Bailey is back after winning gold at the 2017 World Championships, becoming the first-ever American champion. Susan Dunklee took silver to become the first U.S. woman to medal in an individual event. Together, they lead a robust team that could put America in its rightful place as a world leader in sports that would actually look cool being performed in an action movie sequence.
What time and how can I watch?
Biathlon has a ton of events throughout the Olympics, beginning Feb. 10 and going through Feb. 23. They will be televised on NBCSN and NBC, mostly on delay. They can be watched live through NBCOlympics.com or the NBC Sports app. Let’s dive in. (All times Eastern).
- Feb. 10 — Women’s 7.5 km sprint beginning at 6:15 a.m. NBCSN from 1 p.m.
- Feb. 11 — Men’s 10 km sprint beginning at 6:15 a.m. NBCSN from 5 a.m., and at 7 p.m.; NBC, from 3 p.m.
- Feb. 12 — Women’s 10 km pursuit and men’s 12.5km pursuit beginning at 5:10 a.m. NBCSN from 5:10 a.m., and at 12:15 p.m.; NBC from 3 p.m.
- Feb. 14 — Women’s 15 km individual beginning at 6:05 a.m. NBCSN from 11:30 a.m.
- Feb. 15 — Men’s 20 km individual beginning at 6 a.m. NBCSN from noon.
- Feb. 17 — Women’s 12.5 km mass start beginning at 6:15 a.m. NBCSN from 11:30 a.m.; NBC from 3 p.m.
- Feb. 18 — Men’s 15 km mass start beginning at 6:15 a.m. NBCSN from noon; NBC from 3 p.m.
- Feb. 20 — Mixed relay beginning at 6:15 a.m. NBCSN from 10:30 a.m.; NBC from 3 p.m.
- Feb. 22 — Women’s 4×6 km relay beginning at 6:15 a.m. NBCSN from 5:20 a.m.; NBC from 3 p.m.
- Feb. 23 — Men’s 4×7.5 km relay beginning at 6:15 a.m. NBC from 3 p.m.; NBCSN from 8 p.m.
Why should I quit my job and become a lifelong devotee of biathlon?
Biathlon may be one of the most challenging sports of the Winter Olympics because it forces athletes to do two very different activities. Cross-country skiing is brutal. It is one of the most exhausting endurance sports on Earth, and it notably jacks up your heart rate through the roof. It is once biathloners get all hot and bothered on the race course that they are then tasked with lifting a 7.7-pound rifle and shooting at targets, which requires a steady hand and, ideally, a low heart rate.
Biathloners, in the middle of racing for Olympic glory, have to suddenly stop and steel their nerves, quickly becoming inert enough to hit a tiny target from 50 meters away while putting out of mind the fact that, if they miss, they may get a penalty or have to ski a penalty lap.
In essence, if they were animals they would have to be both jackrabbits and sharks. Jackrabbit sharks. That’s f**cking rad.
And that’s before you consider the origin of the sport:
Many sports are born out of necessity and gradually turn into a form of recreation (the Luge was borrowed from a sledding method of delivery boys, for example). The Biathlon, so named because its Latin translation means “the joining of two contests,” is one such sporting event. The combination of skiing and pausing to shoot a weapon (bow, rifle, or other projectile) goes back to the early days of snow dwellers hunting for food. Such scenes have been found depicted in rock carvings in Norway.
Literally this sport started when a bunch of Vikings or whatever got bored of killing things and starving and decided to turn their survival into a pastime. Like how you trick yourself into getting through the work day by calling “work” something like “playing a video game, but it’s a spreadsheet in which you slay the evil budgetary oversight” except actually cool.
What are the rules of Biathlon? What is the weirdest rule of Biathlon?
The biathlon at the Olympics has five disciplines: individual, sprint, pursuit, mass start, and relay. They are all theme and variation on a concept that goes like this: Athletes must ski a set number of laps and after each one take a round shooting at five targets.
The individual is the longest event — 20 kilometers for men, 15 kilometers for women, five laps each — in which athletes do four rounds of shooting, alternating shooting positions — prone, then standing, then prone, then standing again. Sprint is half the length — 10 and 7.5 kilometers, respectively — both over three laps with two rounds of shooting — one prone, one standing.
The other three disciplines are probably the most fun. In pursuit, competitors are staggered by time based on how well they did in the sprint and individual events, and they have to pursue (some might say, “hunt”) one another over 12.5 kilometers for men and 10 kilometers for women, so that the winner is whoever crosses the finish line first.
Mass start is literally a biathlon with a mass start of competitors — 30 for the Olympics, over a distance of 15 kilometers for men, and 12.5 kilometers for women. The relay pits teams of four skiers against one another over 30 kilometers for men and 24 kilometers for women, with each skier taking two rounds of shooting.
The best part of any biathlon race comes when competitors miss a target. In the Individual, a missed shot results in a one-minute penalty. In every other event it results in a mandatory 150-meter penalty loop — which means that if you miss a shot, you have to quick do a lap, jacking up your heart rate again and making it even harder for you to shoot.
In sum, biathlon is merciless.
What can I talk about to impress the biathlon enthusiast in my life?
Biathlon is one of the few sports in which alcohol could be considered a performance-enhancing drug. Literally, it’s the same reason why you seem to be better at beer pong after drinking a beer or two. Alcohol is a muscle relaxant that also suppresses your cardiovascular system, reducing your heart rate — two things that can help give you a steadier hand when you pull up to your station to shoot. Now a vodka tonic probably won’t help your skiing much, but some athletes may be willing to sacrifice some speed (and stability) if it means getting to avoid those dreaded penalty loops.
Whose jersey should I buy?
Bailey and Dunklee are the two best from the United States, and both have a solid shot at medaling. If you bleed red, white, and blue, these are your potential heroes. They both have proved they can compete with the best in the world.
But for pure heavyweight fun, you need to watch the battle between Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø and France’s Martin Fourcade. Fourcade is a veteran at 29 who has won more Olympic medals than any athlete in French history, and he’s still in his prime. Thingnes Bø is 24 and rounding into form after a respectable showing in Sochi at just 20 years old. Those two racers appear to be in another class compared to their competition, even in an unpredictable sport.
I have a particular soft spot for Fourcade, who gives away every medal he wins in non-Olympic World Championship competition to kids because, “for the World Cup it’s more about sharing what we won with the people in the crowd.” He also has a resting heart rate of 25 beats per minute, which ... is that even healthy?
What is the sport’s AMERICA RATING?
Three apple pies out of five. In spirit, the biathlon feels about as American as it gets, but the results suggest otherwise. Once America starts medaling, however, I expect biathlon-a-mania to sweep across the nation.
What’s the best GIF I can watch from biathlon?
The shooting part of biathlon obviously gets a lot of attention, but the skiing can be just as thrilling. In Sochi, for example, Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen barely beat a hard-charging Fourcade, who sprinted to the line and stuck out one ski as far as it could go to ultimately lose by the slimmest margin possible.