5 Things You Didn’t Know About Biathlon

By Lisa Costantini | Dec. 22, 2016, 3:57 p.m. (ET)
Lowell Bailey (R) competes during the men's pursuit at the IBU Biathlon World Cup on Jan. 9, 2016 in Ruhpolding, Germany.

There are a lot of things in this world that are hard to understand: the game of cricket, computer viruses, the Electoral College. But something that is not hard to grasp is the sport of biathlon (which means dual event). You take cross-country skiing and combine it with shooting. What’s so hard to grasp about that? But despite being a sport that is easy to understand, what doesn’t make any sense is how it can be the only winter sport where an American has yet to medal at the Olympics.

Biathlete Lowell Bailey, who has competed in the sport for two decades — including at three Olympic Winter Games, is one of many athletes who have come close to that feat and is eager to do so at the PyeongChang Games in 2018. So we asked him to share other shocking facts with us about the sport that involves a pair of skis and a gun. Here are five things you probably didn’t know about biathlon.

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1. Biathletes Are A Big Deal In Other Parts Of The World

“You know how you have sports icons in the U.S., like a Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods?” Bailey asked, trying to explain the phenomenon of biathlon’s popularity in parts of Europe. “That’s how big some of these biathletes are in certain countries.”

He can remember getting into a taxi in Europe and the driver knew stats on biathlon.

“Not basketball or baseball, but biathlon,” he said. “It’s a pleasantly surprising phenomenon that happens frequently over there.”

But he gets why North American sports fans struggle to understand the popularity of biathlon, because “there are plenty of Americans who have never even seen snow! So it’s easier for people in the U.S. to relate to baseball or basketball, which is probably what they were introduced to at a very young age.”

From the athlete funding perspective, Bailey explains “if you’re a corporation in Europe, it’s a better choice to sponsor a biathlete than say a basketball player or baseball player, because you’re going to get more TV time. So I think that’s why it’s so tough for us to break onto the medals stand because we’re fighting a little bit of an uphill battle.”

But not for long, he guessed. “I think Americans have some unique attributes that the bigger European programs don’t have,” he noted. “Like what we have with the USOC (United States Olympic Committee) and the world class training facilities in Lake Placid.” And the sport is starting to gain popularity in the U.S. thanks to the proliferation of streaming video feeds, he said. “Because for the first time, the biathlon world cup TV feeds that are broadcast to millions of people every weekend in Europe are now accessible to Americans if they go online. As a result, more people know what biathlon is now and there are more kids getting involved than ever before. I have high hopes for the next 10 years and think that the first-ever U.S. Olympic biathlon medal is not far off.”

2. You Can Thank Scandinavian Hunters For Inventing The Sport

It may seem strange to think of a sport that involves skiing with a rifle on your back as an Olympic event, but biathlon’s roots date back more than 4,000 years — when Scandinavian hunters would go off in search of prey on skis with weapons thrown over their shoulders. In more modern times, the military adapted training exercises using the same techniques and eventually it became a skills competition for the top performers.

Not much has changed since the first recorded biathlon competition went off in the 18th century between the militaries of Sweden and Norway. “Rifles are quite a bit more advanced now, the skis are quicker and no longer made of wood, but it’s the same basic idea,” Bailey said.

The military is still intertwined with biathlon. As Bailey said, “if you look at the bios of a lot of the professional biathletes on the world cup, a lot of them list as their second profession that they’re a soldier or a border guard or customs agent.”

3. Anyone Can Win – Any Country, Any Age

Biathlon — which Bailey has heard compared to running up 10 flights of stairs and then trying to thread a needle — is “statistically one of the most competitive sports,” he explained. “Meaning that when you look at Olympic medal winners, biathlon has by far the greatest variety of athletes from different countries. So when you look at even a sport like cross-country skiing, the podium is dominated by one country — like Norway, or a handful of countries.

“But biathlon is competitive across a large number of countries. And I think that’s what makes it appealing for the fans, and it’s part of the reason why it’s so popular on TV. Because virtually any country has someone in the race and someone who is able to win on any given day.”

“And as a competitor, it’s a really exciting atmosphere to race at a competition where there are roughly 100 guys in the men’s field and 50 of them are competitive enough to step on the podium. For me, that makes it so appealing, and I think that’s why you see biathletes — almost more than any other Olympic sport — come to the sport early and stay late. It’s the reason why I’ve stuck around so long!”

Though at 35 years old and with two decades of competition under his belt, he’s still considered young for the sport. “I think we have a 46-year-old biathlete from Latvia on the world cup this year. Ole Einar Bjoerndalen (of Norway) won a gold medal — his seventh! — at the Sochi Olympics at 40 years old. And then we have 21-year-old prodigies that come to the sport off the junior circuit and win Olympic medals as well,” he laughed.

4. Their Workouts Are Like Full-Time Jobs

Just because biathletes get to lie down on the job (many of their shooting stances are required to be in the prone position) they are still putting in plenty of effort in the gym.

“Generally speaking, professional biathletes are training throughout the year (except for maybe three weeks in April),” Bailey said. “Our training regime is six days a week with two workouts a day, usually in the morning with a bit of time for lunch and recovery work, and then another two-hour workout in the evening.”

“It’s a full-time job,” he said. “If you broke it down, it’s more than 40 hours a week devoted to training and biathlon. I think that’s surprising to people that it’s such a commitment that you can’t do it as a hobby.”

5. Just Because You Can Shoot, Doesn’t Mean You Can Be A Biathlete

We’ve seen Olympic sprinters transition into bobsledders, cyclists becoming speedskaters, and gymnasts flying into aerials skiing, but why don’t we see shooters gunning for Olympic medals in biathlon? Bailey said there is a good reason why the majority of biathletes come to the sport from Nordic skiing.

Because “most would argue that the cross-country skiing component of the sport takes a lot longer time to get to an internationally elite level,” he explained. “Whereas you’ve seen it time and time again that you can take an elite cross-country skier and within a relatively short amount of time — say three to five years — you can get them shooting at an elite level relatively quickly (if they have the aptitude). Compared to the roughly 20 years it takes of training cross-country skiing to get to an elite level.”