Olympics Skiing and Shooting, It's called the Biathlon
If you have been flipping through the coverage of the Sochi Olympic Games, you may have come across some random footage of people skiing like mad with odd shaped backpacks that look like rifles, only to watch them unsling said pack and fire some rounds through it at a tiny target half a football field away. This is the biathlon.
What is it?
With its roots in Norwegian military ski patrols of the 19th century, the sport combines cross-country skiing, and target shooting with a rifle. First placed in the Winter Olympics in 1924, it has been a favorite of Nordic country teams for generations.
There are currently two types of events, the sprint, and the pursuit. In the sprint, the distance (several kilometers varied for men and women) is skied over three laps. The biathlete shoots twice at any shooting lane, once prone and once standing, for 10 shots.
For each miss, a penalty loop of 150 meters must be skied before the race can be continued-- which makes it vital that you hit each target. The pursuit is based on the times in the sprint, with athletes starting handicapped by them in one long race.
The US has long been a dark horse in the world of the winter biathlon. It is actually the only winter Olympics sport in which we have *never* won a medal.
We do have a biathlon team. Consisting of ten athletes, mixed men and women, they all hail from cold-weather states such as Minnesota, Colorado, New York, Alaska, Maine and Vermont. Some are veterans, like Tim Burke, who is going to the Olympics for the third time. Others, like Annelies Cook, are going for their first.
Unlike many countries whose teams are made up primarily of soldiers, the current US team is composed 100% by civilians. Although they do train at Camp Ethan Allen in Vermont, a National Guard base set aside for mountain and arctic warfare.
Quality biathlon rifles start at $1000 for entry level guns while the better ones can go $4000.
"It's a sport that requires you to hit something the size of an Oreo cookie at 50 yards while you're at maximum physical exertion," Team USA's Lowell Bailey said . "You need a rifle that fits you absolutely perfectly."
We give you an Anschutz 1827F Fortner-Heavy Barrel rifle, MSRP $3500. Its 8.47-lbs, 40-inches long with a 21.65-inch Nitrided steel barrel and a five shot 22lr magazine. Shooting sub-MOA at temperatures under 32F is what this gun does all day. As you can see four extra 5-shot mags are carried on board for quick-change overs.
In Sochi, a byproduct of the strict gun control laws that are common Russia, biathlon competitors must lock up their rifles at the training complex with specially coded keys that only allow their access and no one else's. Each box of ammunition is carefully accounted for.
The US Team so far has done well, with Tim Burke placing 19th in the Men's Sprint on February 8, Tim again placing 22nd in the Men's Pursuit on the 10th, and Susan Dunklee placing an impressive 14th in the women's Sprint, the highest ever for a US female biathlon competitor.
(The little black things are the targets, missing is not an option)
"I had really strong skiing today," said Dunklee. "I feel like I'm peaking at the right time. Prone felt spot on. In standing it felt like I had it after I took that fifth shot, so that was a little heartbreaking, but I was able to laugh at myself and keep going."
The medals thus far in this sport in Sochi have gone, not surprisingly, to Slovakia, Norway, France, the Czech Republic, Russia, Austria, and the Ukraine. The Russian team has been the subject of a doping scandal.
Dunklee will have a chance at the Women's Pursuit on February 11 to close out the event. We wish her luck.
Meanwhile, when US figure skater Simon Shnapir took to the ice with a shoulder holster as part of his routine (it was a salute to James Bond and Skyfall), the collective twitterverse had a meltdown.
It's the Olympics.
May the best shooters win, there is always 2016.