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Thursday, March 9, 2006
The biathlon in 2010 … and beyond

By James A. Swan, Ph.D.
Author of "In Defense of Hunting"

I thought about writing a column about the biathlon before the Torino Olympic Games, but decided against it. My ranting about the lack of TV coverage of this Olympic sport probably would not have made one iota of difference in the programming.

Aside from the blood-doping controversy with the Austrian Nordic team, little or nothing was heard about the biathlon in Olympic coverage, as I expected. This is par for the course in the United States, even though the biathlon is a World Cup event.

In retrospect, maybe the lack of coverage of the biathlon is why the ratings this time weren't so hot. Isn't hindsight great!

In Europe, especially Scandinavia, the biathlon is enormously popular. It drew the largest crowd when the games were held in Lillehammer. It's little wonder then that the Europeans tend to dominate the sport.

In case you don't know much about it, the biathlon is a combination of two very different sports — rifle shooting and distance foot racing in the summer or, in winter, Nordic or cross-country skiing.

You run or ski a distance, then must quickly get your breathing under control and hit a target with a .22-caliber rifle with a peep sight. If you miss, you are penalized in time. The fastest time wins.

The origins of the winter biathlon can be traced to a 4,000-year-old rock carving in Norway showing people hunting (with arrows and spears) on skis. The first organized competition took place in 1767, when Swedish and Norwegian border patrol units competed.

Shooting sports were part of the first modern Olympics in 1896. Today there are 18 different shooting sports events in the Summer Olympics, and eight biathlon events in the Winter Olympics. (The summer biathlon is not yet an Olympic sport.) More nations compete in shooting events than anything else.

The biathlon first entered in the Winter Olympics in 1924 at the Chamonix Games in France as a demonstration. The first World Championship was held in 1958.

The first official Olympic competition was the men's 20 kilometer at Squaw Valley in 1960. The relay joined in 1968. In 1978 the switch was made from large-bore military rifles to .22-caliber rifles. The sprint was added at Lake Placid in 1980, and the first women's events began in 1992 in France.

Like most of you, aside from a little fast footwork to get in position to shoot at an elk that's ambling away, shooting combined with running or skiing don't mix.

Indeed, I had no experience with the biathlon until a couple years ago, when I participated in one of the media seminars produced by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Our group of pencil pushers was introduced to the sport by Debbie Schultz and Shaun Marshall-Pryde from the USA Summer Biathlon team.

In the summer biathlon, you run six kilometers and periodically stop to shoot a .22-caliber target rifle at three-inch-diameter metal targets at 25 yards.

For each round of shooting, you shoot five shots. If you miss a target, you have to run an additional penalty distance. The winner has the lowest time. Schultz and Marshall-Pryde described the combined skills of biathlon as "running up ten flights of stairs and then threading a needle."

Schultz and Marshall-Pryde introduced us to the event with a 1-kilometer course — -mile laps and two chances to shoot. OK, I finished dead last in time. My two football knees kept me from running faster, honest. I'd have done better on skis. Honest. But I knocked down seven of 10 targets, which was the top marksmanship score.

There are eight winter biathlon events — the sprint, pursuit, relay and mass, for men and women.

The rules vary from event to event, but in general, the fastest time to complete the course wins. And, you have to fire your first shot in so many seconds and you are penalized for every missed target by having to ski an extra 150 meters.

The winter biathlon targets are larger — 45mm for prone and 115mm for standing — but the distance is 50 meters and you carry your rifle with you, strapped on your back, while skiing the course. In summer you leave your rifle in a rack and pick it up to shoot when you come into the range area.

The U.S. Olympic shooting team has won the third largest total of medals in any Olympic sport, after track and field and swimming, yet the lack of mainstream news reporting on Olympic shooting events makes these competitors "invisible athletes." Sad for them, and for sport shooting.

The International Biathlon Union was hoping an America like Alaskan Jay Hakkinen might take a medal, which would get the biathlon some prime time media coverage. Hakkinen's 13th place in the Mass Start was respectable, and he anchored the Men's Relay Team to 9th place.

The Women's Relay Team came in 15th, and that also was an indication of the growing strength of the U.S. Biathlon Team.

To elevate the biathlon to the level of attention it deserves, we need some American medalists — but one or two other things, or both, also would help. If the media won't make U.S. biathletes celebrities, we need a celebrity in some other area to take up the biathlon.

Actress Geena Davis (TV's "Commander In Chief," "Thelma and Louise") had never picked up a bow and arrow until she watched Justin Huish win a gold medal in 1996. Davis thought it looked like something neat to try. She went on to almost make 2000 U.S. Olympic archery team after only two years of serious shooting, bringing in enormous media coverage.

Davis placed 24th of 28 in the semi-finals. If she had made the top 16 and been in the finals, the U.S. Olympic Archery Team would have been in the spotlight like never before.

You hunters out there who run or ski, take a lead from Davis. Could you be in the next Olympics? The oldest Olympic competitor ever was 72 and he was in a shooting event — not the biathlon, though.

The other thing that's needed for publicity is a really engaging feature film about the biathlon. Maybe something analogous to the 1985 film "Vision Quest," starring Matthew Modine and with a cameo by Madonna. It's about a high-school wrestler who decides to totally dedicate himself to being the best he can be.

Incidentally, for you archers, there is a growing movement to push for the archery biathlon as a winter Olympic sport, which would bring back the spirit of those 4,000-year-old pictographs.


James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.