Biathlon 101: Rules and event breakdown

Biathlon 101: Rules and event breakdown

Silhouette of biathlete competing at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games as

Biathlon consists of a cross-country ski race coupled with target shooting with rifles. The shooting portion of a biathlon race is known as a shooting bout. Races have either two or four shooting bouts in Olympic biathlon, and are executed while the athlete is either standing (S) or in the prone (P) position. If an athlete misses a target or targets during a bout they are penalized either by adding minutes to their time automatically or by having to ski a penalty loop near the exit of the shooting range. 

Biathlon events can be broken down into six categories: Individual, Sprint, Pursuit, Relay, Mixed Relay and Mass Start. Of the six, five include a men’s and women’s events, while the mixed relay features teams of four athletes – two women and two men – skiing and shooting in the same race for gold, silver and bronze. Events also vary by what type of start is used to begin the race (interval or mass start) as well as how many shooting bouts are required in a race, and the amount of ammunition allotted each biathlete per bout.

Unlike cross-country athletes who compete in races which officially designate the use of either classical or freestyle techniques, biathletes use freestyle, or skating style, for nearly every kilometer raced. The only exception in biathlon is in the first 100 meters of the relays in which classical technique is required.

Biathlon event breakdown

 

Individual
Men’s distance: 20km
Women’s distance: 15km
Number of shooting bouts (order): 4 (P+S+P+S)
Rounds of ammunition per bout: 5
Penalty for missed targets: 1 minute added to time
Race start format: Interval

Called the “traditional biathlon competition” by the International Biathlon Union (IBU), the individual events are as they are named. Biathletes individually race and shoot against the clock to post the fastest time of the day. Athletes who have completed the course must undergo a disquieted form of torture as they wait for the others to cross the finish line to see if there time will be good enough to put them on the medal stand. The world’s elite will finish the race in just under 50 minutes.

Sprint
Men’s distance: 10km
Women’s distance: 7.5km
Number of shooting bouts (order): 2 (P+S)
Rounds of ammunition per bout: 5
Penalty for missed targets: Ski one 150m penalty loop for each missed target
Race start format: Interval

If you want to understand the sprint event in biathlon, take a metaphorical knife and cut the Individual men’s and women’s events in half. In doing so you shorten the skiing portion to 10km for the men and 7.5km for the women, and four shooting bouts become two. All that’s left is the change in format for penalty enforcement. Instead of automatically adding a minute to a biathletes time for every missed target, athletes must ski a penalty loop for every target they fail to convert. That’s the sprint.

Pursuit
Men’s distance: 12.5km
Women’s distance: 10km
Number of shooting bouts (order): 4 (P+P+S+S)
Rounds of ammunition per bout: 5
Penalty for missed targets: Ski one 150m penalty loop for each missed target
Race start format: Winners of Individual and Sprint depart first, remaining athletes depart the starting gate in intervals based on their sprint event finishing time.

The pursuit is like nothing else in the biathlon Olympic program. The finish in pursuit is traditional enough – first person to cross the line wins gold – but it’s the start that sets the unique stage for this event. Gold medal winners in the individual and sprint events are given a head start, setting off onto the course first. The “pursuit” begins when the rest of the field begins the chase. The remaining athletes wait like greyhounds crammed into a starting gate, waiting to chase the rabbits. The chasers ski out of the starting gate in order based on their finishing time behind the sprint event winner. 

Relay
Men’s distance: 4×7.5km
Women’s distance: 4x6km
Number of shooting bouts (order): 2 per biathlete (P+S)
Rounds of ammunition per bout: 5 in magazine + 3 loose rounds (must be hand loaded) 
Penalty for missed targets: Ski one 150m penalty loop for each missed target 
Race start format: Mass start featuring first members of each relay team

Athletes are allotted three spare rounds of ammo per shooting bout in the relay. The IBU states the extra rounds give athletes the opportunity to attempt to shoot faster in a pressure-packed race where speed and accuracy on the range can make a huge impact at the finish line. If you want to spot the favorites in a relay simply look at their bib number. The number on a biathlete’s bib represents their team’s current IBU World Cup Relay Score ranking. 

Mixed Relay
Distance: 2x6km Women + 2×7.5km Men
Number of shooting bouts (order): 2 per biathlete (P+S)
Rounds of ammunition per bout: 5 in magazine + 3 loose rounds (must be hand loaded)
Penalty for missed targets: Ski one 150m penalty loop for each missed target  
Race start format: Mass start featuring first members of each relay team

Unique to biathlon, the mixed relay event features teams of two men and two women competing for Olympic gold. The first two legs of the race are contested by the women who race 6km a piece, stopping to shoot twice, and the men race the third and fourth legs, also facing two bouts on the shooting range, but will complete a ski portion measuring 7.5km. Just like in the relays, an athlete may hand-load up to three single bullets if they have any remaining targets after expiring their first five shots from the magazine.

Mass Start
Men’s distance: 15km
Women’s distance: 12.5km
Number of shooting bouts (order): 4 (P+P+S+S)
Rounds of ammunition per bout: 5
Penalty for missed targets: Ski one 150m penalty loop for each missed target 
Race start format: It’s a mass start! But you probably already knew that.

When you send 30+ biathletes onto the course all at once expect the unexpected. Some biathletes are faster skiers while others are more exacting sharpshooters, but a biathlete’s lead in the mass start is only as good at their trigger finger allows. With each missed target a racer must ski a 150m penalty loop, meaning an athlete can easily give up their lead with a single errant bullet. Like in every biathlon event, the best way to have a shot at the medal stand is shoot clean and stay out of the loop.

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