Biathlon 101: Origins and Olympic history

Biathlon 101: Origins and Olympic history

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway fires his biathlon rifle at 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games

Believed to be thousands of years old, rock drawings discovered in Russia, Sweden, Norway and Mongolia depict humans standing on what appear to be long skis. Many of these drawings also feature the small figures carrying weapons resembling bows, arrows and clubs.  The oldest pair of skis found have been carbon dated to around 6,000 BCE. In its most basic form, the sport of biathlon could arguably claim its earliest origins trace back to these early hunters.

Biathlon as a competitive sport evolved out of military skills learned by soldiers. Research suggests skis were used during Norway’s civil war around the start of the 11th century. A military competition held in 1767 on the Norway-Sweden border is often cited as the first recorded biathlon-like event.

A precursor to biathlon, “Ski Militaire” debuted at the 1924 Chamonix Olympic Winter Games as an event exclusively for military personnel. It would continue as a demonstration sport at the Olympic Winter Games in 1928, 1936 and 1948. After World War II the sport was pulled from the Olympic program due to post-war sensitivities.

The shoot and ski discipline was officially added to the Olympic Winter Games in 1960 in Squaw Valley, California with a single race, and under its current name. In PyeongChang, biathletes will compete in 11 events. Biathlon has grown into the most-watched winter sport across Europe, with television audiences in the hundreds of millions and events regularly drawing crowds of over 30,000 people.

Biathlon Olympic History

1960 Squaw Valley
Biathlon officially debuted at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympic Winter Games with just one event, the men’s 20km individual event. Klas Lestander of Sweden won gold despite having just the 15th fastest time on skis. Lestander shot clean (20-for-20) on the range, the only athlete to do so in Squaw Valley.

1964 Innsbruck
Two Soviets, Vladimir Melanin and Aleksandr Privalov, were perfect in the shooting portion of the competition, taking home Olympic gold and silver. Melanin’s skiing made the difference, when he crossed the finish line more than three minutes ahead of Privalov. It was Melanin’s first Olympic medal after a “wooden medal” end in Squaw Valley, where he finished off the podium in fourth. Despite dominating the lone biathlon event in Innsbruck, Melanin would go on to retire after the Olympics.

Privalov’s silver medal finish in Innsbruck gave him his second Olympic medal. He won bronze four years earlier in Squaw Valley in the inagural Olympic biathlon competition. 

1968 Grenoble
The 4×7.5km relay became the second biathlon event added to the Olympic Winter Games, debuting in Grenoble. The Soviet Union would own the event for six-consecutive Olympic Winter Games. Aleksandr Tikhonov was a fixture on the Soviet relay, skiing and shooting for gold in 1968, 1972, 1976 and 1980. 

In the 20km individual event, Tikhonov finished second to earn his only individual medal of his career. Flawless shooting by Magnar Solberg of Norway – the first time he had been perfect in any competition – put the Norwegian on top of the Olympic podium. Reports say Solberg told photographers after the win, “I am very happy, but too tired to smile.”

1972 Sapporo
Norway’s Magnar Solberg became the first biathlete to win back-to-back individual gold medals, defending his 20km gold title in Sapporo. The race was closer in Sapporo, with Solberg missing two out of 20 targets for a finishing time just over eight seconds ahead of silver medalist Hans-Joerg Knauthe of East Germany.

In the relay, the Soviet Union won their second-straight gold medal. Champion biathlete Aleksandr Tikhonov broke one of his skis while warming up. In a show of Olympic spirit, his friend and East German competitor, Dieter Speer, lent Tikhonov one of his own skis. Tikhonov and his Soviet teammates would go on to win gold, while East Germany would slide into third for bronze.

1976 Innsbruck
The Winter Olympics returned to Innsbruck, Austria, and the Soviet Union returned to take its third straight relay Olympic gold medal, beating Finland to the finish by 3 minutes, 49.94 seconds. It stands as the largest margin of victory in a men’s 4×7.5 relay in Olympic history.

The Soviet biathlon domination spread to the individual competition where Nikolai Kruglov won gold and Aleksandr Yelizarov took the bronze. The 1976 Innsbruck Olympic Winter Games were also the last time large military weapons were used in biathlon, a shift that lead to the use of lighter rifles with smaller .22 cartridges.

1980 Lake Placid
The Olympic biathlon competition would expand again in Lake Placid with the addition of the 10km sprint event. The most significant change in competition was the shift to lower-caliber target rifles.

Two men won three Olympic biathlon medals each in Lake Placid. East Germany’s Frank Ullrich won an individual gold and silver, while adding another silver in the relay. For the Soviet Union, Anatoly Alyabyev won relay gold, plus another gold and a bronze in the individual events. Aleksandr Tikhonov finished his Olympic career in Lake Placid, winning his fourth biathlon relay gold medal – his fifth Olympic medal overall.

1984 Sarajevo
West Germany, East Germany, Norway and the Soviet Union all claimed medals in biathlon in Sarajevo. Two men, West Germany’s Peter Angerer and Norway’s Eirik Kvalfoss won a medal of every color, competing in all three events.

1988 Calgary
East German Frank-Peter Roetsch became the first biathlete to win both individual biathlon events, winning the sprint by 15 seconds and the individual by 20 seconds. Competing in the last Winter Olympics before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, USSR’s Valery Medvedtsev won silver in both individual events and a gold in the relay. It was the sixth straight and final Olympic biathlon gold for the Soviet Union in the 4×7.5km relay event.

1992 Albertville
The 1992 Albertville Olympic Winter Games were the first in which former-Soviet athletes competed as a Unified Team with athletes from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. The Soviet Union had been dissolved on December 25, 1991. This helped to an end to the Soviet Union’s 4×7.5km relay win streak at the Olympics, with Germany stepping in to claim the gold in Albertville.

Also in 1992, women made their Olympic debut in biathlon. Germany’s Antje Misersky won medals in all three events (15km – gold, 7.5km and 3×7.5km relay – silver). The gold medalist in the 7.5km sprint, the Unified Team’s Anfisa Restova, had also been a successful Olympic cross-country skier – winning relay gold and an individual silver medal in 1988 in Calgary. Miraculously, the French won gold in the women’s relay despite having just nine certified women as biathletes in France.

In the men’s events, Mark Kirchner of Germany won three medals (10km and 4×7.5km relay – gold, 20km – silver). Some speculated Kirchner’s silver should have been gold. He missed three targets during the 20km race, but skied nearly three minutes faster than Yevgeny Redkin of the Unified Team. In a cruel twist, it was later discovered the 20km course measured 563 meter too short. Could Kirchner have closed the gap on Redkin in those omitted kilometers? Some biathlon experts thought so.

1994 Lillehammer
The Russian Federation won women’s relay biathlon gold in Lillehammer, a win that was a bit of a throwback to the biathlon relay legacy of the Soviet Union men’s teams from 1968-1988. It was the first biathlon relay gold for Russian biathletes since 1988. The Russian men couldn’t match the Russian women in Lillehammer, where they finished with silver behind Germany in their own relay

Canadian Myriam Bedard became the second person – and first woman – to win two individual biathlon gold medals at the same Olympics, despite racing on mismatched skis.

In the men’s events, Russia and Germany ruled the individual events. Two Sergeis won three individual medals in biathlon. Sergei Tchepikov won gold in the 10km while Sergei Tarassov won gold in the 20km and bronze in the 10km.

Three Germans, Ricco Gross, Frank Luck and Sven Fischer filled out the men’s individual events podium positions in Lillehammer. The trio was also on the team to win relay gold for a second straight Olympics for Germany.   

1998 Nagano
The soon-to-be “Best Biathlete in History,” Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, made his first trip to the top of the podium for gold in the 10km individual event in his second trip to the Olympic Winter Games. Bjoerndalen also added a silver to his medal collection in the men’s 4×7.5km relay. 

In the women’s competition, Germany’s Uschi Disl won a gold, silver and bronze to raise her total to a then-biathlon record six medals. She took gold in the 4×7.5km relay, silver in the 7.5km sprint and bronze in the 15km individual race.

Germany kept its winning ways going in the men’s relay, getting their third straight Olympic gold in the event in Nagano.

2002 Salt Lake City
Norway’s men swept Salt Lake’s Olympic biathlon golds, with Ole Einar Bjoerndalen winning all three individual events, along with helping his countrymen win the top prize in the relay. Bjoerndalen was the first biathlete since 1972 to win back-to-back gold medals in an individual event when he won his second Olympic gold in the 10km. Bjoerndalen’s four gold medals were a new Olympic record in biathlon, raising his career total to five golds.

Germany won three of the four women’s gold medals, including its second consecutive gold in the relay. Uschi Disl won one gold and one silver to increase her Olympic medal total to eight.

The men’s and women’s pursuit events were contested for the first time in the Olympics in Salt Lake.

2006 Torino
The men’s and women’s mass start events were added to the Olympic Winter Games for Torino, which increased the chances of having multiple medalists.

Prior to Torino, 11 athletes had won three or more medals at a single Games. In Torino, six athletes won three medals: Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, Germany’s Michael Greis, Sven Fischer, Kati Wilhelm, Martina Glagow and Russia’s Albina Akhatova

It was also a good Olympics for biathlon veterans, as Germany’s Ricco Gross (35 years, 183 days), Uschi Disl (35 years, 102 days) and Russia’s Tchepikov (39 years, 22 days) all won medals.

Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen won three medals in Torino, while Germany’s Disl won one, placing both athletes at the top of their respective all-time Olympic medal winner lists.

Amid all the record setting, Russia’s Olga Pyleva was stripped of her silver medal in the 15km individual event when she tested positive for the banned substance carphedon. She was later given a two-year ban by the International Biathlon Union.

2010 Vancouver
The biathletes in Vancouver posted several Olympic firsts and records over seven days of competition in Canada.

Anastasia Kuzmina (formally Shipulina) became Slovakia’s first winter Olympic champion when she won the 7.5km sprint. Kuzmina won another medal in Vancouver, silver in the 10km pursuit. 

Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen won two medals, gold in the relay and silver in the 20km individual, increasing his all-time record-setting medal count to 11. 

Competing in his fifth Olympics for Norway, Halvard Hanevold became the oldest medalist ever, male or female (40 years, 86 days old), when he skied and shot in the opening leg of the men’s 4×7.5km relay. 

After being stripped of her bronze medal in Torino, Russia’s Olga Pyleva-Medvedtseva became the first athlete in Olympic history to win a medal after having one stripped during the previous Olympic Games due to a banned substance infraction. In doing so, Pyleva-Medvedtseva also became the oldest female Olympic gold medalist (34 years, 233 days old) in history.

2014 Sochi
The mixed relay was the newest biathlon event added to the Olympic program, debuting in Sochi.

Sochi’s biggest biathlon story featured the continued reign of Norway’s biathlon “King.” Amid the hype of younger competitors, the 40-year-old Ole Einar Bjoerndalen attacked Sochi’s biathlon course, adding more gold to his coffer. Bjoerndalen won his twelfth Olympic medal in his first event when he won gold in the men’s 10km sprint.

Eleven days later, Bjoerndalen won record-increasing number thirteen, another gold, in the newly-added mixed relay event. He would pass cross-country skier and fellow Norwegian, Bjorn Daehlie to become the winningest winter Olympian in history.
 
Another biathlon standout in Sochi was France’s Martin Fourcade. The tall, dark and handsome Frenchman remained humble after a Sochi performance that would land him three individual medals, two golds and a silver. That silver was nearly gold number three for Fourcade, but a photo finish in the men’s 15km mass start showed the boot toe of Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen crossing the line first.

In the women’s competition, appearing in her second Olympic Winter Games, Belarus’ Darya Domracheva became a star in Sochi when she won gold in three of the four women’s individual biathlon events. Domracheva’s run in Sochi is the first time a female biathlete had earned three gold medals in a single Olympic Winter Games.

In the women’s 15km individual event, Domracheva finished a full 1 minute, 15 seconds ahead of silver medalist Selina Gasparin of Switzerland. It would stand as the largest margin of victory recorded in Sochi. An incredible finish at first glace was made even more impressive when one realizes Domracheva had a full minute added to her time as a penalty for missing one of her 20 targets on the shooting range, while Gasparin and bronze medalist, Belarusian teammate Nadezhda Skardino, were perfect with their rifles.

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