A decathlon has 10 events, a heptathlon has seven, and a triathlon has three. The biathlon, then, has just two. And an odd couple they are: cross-country skiing and shooting.
This eccentric competition has been contested in various forms since the 18th century and has been part of the Olympics since 1924 (when it was known, more descriptively, as the military ski patrol).
Modern biathlon is a standard cross-country ski race with periodic interruptions in which the athletes pull a .22-caliber rifle off their backs, point it at a target and shoot. Missed targets cost time and sometimes require racers have to ski a 150-meter penalty lap. (The minimum weight of the rifle is 3.5 kilograms, or about eight pounds.)
You might wonder how adding shooting to a cross-country ski race could add excitement. Yet it does.
In a typical cross-country race, the top skiers go to the front quickly. There might be a late pass or two, but the medalists can usually be identified early.
But in biathlon, the shooting aspect is a wild card that throws every race in doubt until nearly the end. A leader who misses a shot or three can fall well back because of penalty laps. A skier who appears to lag can hit every target and vault toward the front.
One of the incongruities of the sport is the drastic difference in the physical skill sets that the two disciplines require. Cross-country skiing is a punishing aerobic sport, rewarding exceptionally fit athletes. Shooting requires motionless calm and precision, to the point that world-class athletes sometimes try to time their shots so they are taken between heartbeats.
The five-time gold medalist Martin Fourcade has retired, but another Frenchman, Quentin Fillon Maillet, has stepped into his skis as the top men’s biathlete. France, the Scandinavian countries, Germany and Russia should account for the bulk of the top finishes.
If you know nothing about a winter sport, it’s usually smart to guess that Norway is good at it. And indeed, Marte Olsbu Roiseland of Norway leads the women’s World Cup biathlon circuit. But the Swedish sisters Elvira Oberg and Hanna Oberg will challenge her in all the events.
Americans have no medals on the World Cup circuit this year and have never won a biathlon medal at the Games.
The events at the Olympics include the individual, a time trial of about 10 miles; the sprint, which is about half as long; the pursuit, in which skiers take off based on their finishes in the sprint; the mass start, in which everyone begins at once; and relays for men, women and mixed gender.
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