Biathlon is one of the most challenging of all the Winter Olympics sports. The biathlon requires athletes to have both stamina and precision as they compete in a cross country skiing race that is interrupted by frequent stops to shoot at a series of targets. This sport, which dates back to the mid-sixteenth century, became part of the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley in 1960, although the biathlon and its predecessor (called military patrol) appeared in many Olympics as a demonstration sport.
The biathletes are judged based on their speed through the course; however, they must stop and calm their breathing enough to aim and hit targets along the way. If they are not able to calm their breathing enough, they will miss their targets. Each time they do miss a target they are given either an additional time or distance penalty, which can quickly add up. So, the skier must go fast enough to stay competitive, but slow enough to maintain control.
The athletes each carry a rifle and shoots at targets that are 50 m (160 ft.) away. At different stages in the race, they will either shoot from a standing position (at targets that are 4.5 in wide) or from the prone position on their belly (at targets that are 1.8 in wide). The Biathlon at the winter Olympics consists of five events: individual, sprint, pursuit, relay and mass start competitions.
The original biathlon event is the individual race, which is run over a 20 km course for men and 15 km for women. In the individual event, the skier must stop four times to shoot at five targets each time. Each time they miss a target they receive a one minute penalty.
The sprint race (10 km for men and 7.5 km for women) is raced over a three lap course. The biathletes will stop twice and shoot at five targets. If they miss a shot they must ski through a 150 m penalty loop before they can continue along the race course.
The top 60 finishers from the sprint race qualify to compete in the pursuit race (12.5 km for men and 10 km for women). The person with the best time in the sprint race starts the pursuit and each other competitor begins in order according to their sprint finish time. The goal of the race is to pursue the leader and make up ground to be the first to cross the finish line.
The race is divided into five laps and four shooting bouts. Because the racers can bunch up at the target sections of the race, they must shoot in the order that they arrive at the shooting range, which often means that racers are left standing around waiting for their turn. Each missed target results in a trip through the 150 m penalty loop before the biathlete can continue along the course.
The men’s relay is a 4 x 7.5 km event; in other words, each of the four biathletes follows a course that is run over three laps and two shooting bouts. The women run a 4 x 6 km race. Each competitor must perform two shooting rounds.
For each shooting round the competitor has 5 targets. If they miss any of the targets they must manually load a bullet into the gun and try again. They can do this up to three times, if necessary. If after all this they still have misses, they must run the 150 m penalty loop for each missed target.
For the first leg of the relay, all the competitors begin at the same time. As with any relay race, after the competitor completes the course, they must touch the person who is to run the next leg of the race.
The newest of the biathlon events, the mass start, was added at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. For this race, the 30 competitors who had the best scores in the other four events all begin the race (15 km for men and 12.6 km for women) together. In this race there are five laps and four shooting rounds. Each missed target results in a trip through the 150 m penalty loop.