Biathlon at the 2018 Winter Olympics: Your guide to guns, targets and skis

When most people think about cross-country skiing, shooting guns isn't the first thing that pops into their head. But the biathlon combines two events that seem completely unrelated: skiing and shooting rifles. Competitors must mix the laser focus of shooting with the endurance of cross-country skiing. It's not skeet shooting, it's ski shooting.

The biathlon requires steadiness and patience mixed with speed and endurance, the epitome of mind over matter. 

How does the biathlon work?

There are several distances and disciplines that we'll see at the Olympics. The men compete in individual races in distances of 10 kilometers, 12.5 km, 15 km and 20 km. The women compete in 10 km, 12.5 km and 15 km races. There are also relay races. The different disciplines have different rules. For an example of how all of these races looked in Sochi, see the videos below for their respective descriptions.

In individual biathlon, every race is segmented into five bouts. At the end of the first four bouts, individuals must shoot at a target 50 meters away. For every miss, a minute is added onto their time. For their shooting, it goes prone, standing, prone, standing. At the end of the fifth bout, the race is over. Individual biathlon events are time trials -- competitors are up against the clock. Fastest time wins. 

In a sprint, the starts are staggered. It could be 30 seconds, or it could be a minute. There are also only three bouts. Competitors must shoot prone, then standing. For each miss, they have to ski a 150 meter loop before they continue. Again, sprints are time trials.

Pursuit starts are determined by the winners of the individual and sprinting events (see below for more details). Once again, there are four rounds of shooting. They go prone, standing, prone, standing. Competitors take five shots, and once again, for each miss they must take the 150 meter penalty loop before continuing. Whoever crosses the finish line first wins.

Mass starts are different in that starts aren't staggered. They're also prone, standing, prone, standing. For each miss, it's a lap around the penalty loop. Like pursuit, the winner of this race is not based on time trials. It's an outright race.

Relay races feature four-member teams. While the men shoot at 2.5 km and 5 km, the women shoot at 2 km and 4 km. There are three spare bullets in this version. If they miss any of the first five, they must shoot the additional three after hand-loading them, adding time. For each miss per eight bullets, they must ski the penalty loop. Relays come in the "handover zone," where making contact is the equivalent of the baton.

The mixed relay is similar. The two women ski first, then the men. For the women, the shooting comes at the 6 km mark and the men shoot at 7.5 km. The other rules for the relays apply. The mixed relay is also all but brand new, having debuted in Sochi in 2014.

How many biathlon events are there in Pyeongchang?

There will be 11 total biathlon events, broken into men, women and mixed categories.

Men's events

  • 10 km sprint
  • 12.5 km pursuit
  • 15 km mass start
  • 20 km individual
  • 4x7.5km relay

Women's events

  • 7.5 km sprint
  • 10 km pursuit
  • 12.5 km mass start
  • 15 km individual
  • 4x6 km relay

Mixed events

  • Mixed 2x6/7.5 km relay

What's the difference between pursuit and mass start events?

Pursuit events are based on how athletes did in a previous race. Previous races will determine the start times of the 12.5 km pursuit for the men. The time differences will determine when the next athlete can begin. With this in mind, the name is very literal. One athlete is literally pursuing another.

Mass starts, meanwhile, are self-explanatory. Everyone comes out of the gates at the same time. Once again, the first person to cross the finish line wins, but some athletes don't end up with head starts over others. Distances are also often greater in the mass start.

What caliber rifle are the athletes carrying?

Part of what makes the biathlon unique is that it's skiing with a weight on your back. The rifle that athletes are touting is .22 LR. The form of shooting is extremely important. Athletes must shoot quickly and efficiently. Keep in mind that wind can also become a factor, and it's quietly one of the most difficult parts of the Winter Games to hit a target 45 mm in diameter for prone shooters and 115 mm for standing shooters. They must be efficient and steady, two things that counteract each other by nature.

How heavy is the rifle?

This varies from rifle to rifle, of course. However, according to Accurate Shooter, which breaks down the anatomy of the rifle, one of the most popular sprint rifles weights slightly over 8 pounds. While not particularly heavy, it still approximates to a large newborn baby riding your back for up to 20 km.

How does the USA stack up in biathlon?

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OK, not the best. The U.S. has never medaled in the 58 years (16 Games) that the biathlon has been in the Olympics. It has the dubious honor of being the only winter event that the U.S. has never medaled in. The recognition isn't there, nor is the funding. However, Team USA is looking to turn that around. The team is the first to say that they aren't the superstars of the Olympics. Europe dominates the biathlon. However, the Americans are feeling good going into this year.

Who's competing for the U.S. and how good should they feel?

For the men, Lowell Bailey anchors a team that also features Tim Burke, Russell Currier, Sean Doherty and Leif Nordgren.

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Lowell Bailey USATSI

The women will have Emily Dreissigacker, Susan Dunklee, Clare Egan, Maddie Phaneuf and Joanne Reid. 

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Susan Dunklee USATSI

Bailey and Doherty are 38th and 39th in the world, respectively. As for how confident they should feel, they're definitely coming off their best year as a team. Bailey took gold in the biathlon World Championships, the first American to do so. Dunklee also took silver, becoming the first woman to medal. So in spite of a small base, hope is in the air for Team USA. It's crazy to consider that the USA isn't the best in a sport when there are promo images like this:

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USATSI

But they're working on it.

What countries/individuals are favored?

Johannes Thinges of Norway is the men's favorite in sprints, and Norway is expected to take the relay gold. Another name to watch out for is Martin Fourcade of France, who cleaned up at Sochi. 

On the women's side, it's a little less top-heavy. Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia is a big face, as is Laura Dahlmeier from Germany. Another name to look out for is Darya Domracheva from Belarus, not to mention Kaisa Makarainen from Finland. Germany is also favored in both the women's relay and the mixed relay.

When can I watch the biathlon?

The first biathlon event will be the women's 7.5 km sprint at 6:15 a.m. ET on Feb. 10. From there, the men's 10 km sprint will be on at 6:15 a.m. on Feb. 11.

The women's 10 km pursuit can be seen on Feb. 12 at 5:10 a.m. The men's 12.5 km pursuit will also be on Feb. 12 at 7 a.m.

The women's 15 km individual will be on Feb. 14 at 6:05 a.m., whereas the men's 20 km individual is on Feb. 15 at 6 a.m.

Women's 12.5 km mass start is Feb. 17 at 6:15 a.m., whereas the men's 15 km mass start Feb. 18 at the same time.

If the relay is more your speed, the mixed relay is on Feb. 20 at 6:15 a.m. The women's relay is Feb. 22 at 6:15 a.m., and the men's relay is Feb. 23, also at 6:15 a.m.

To see the full schedule for the Olympics, go here.

The races are long, and grueling, but they're also extremely satisfying to watch and they fly by. The challenge is apparent the first time we see the athletes stop and try to collect their breath. They must go from 100 to 0 in a literal heartbeat, and it makes for a unique challenge. Any multiple event athletic event is a challenge. However, the difference in the biathlon is the mental fortitude it takes to be successful. Whether it's the urgency of the sprint or the pacing of the individual races, the biathlon is the type of challenge that asks viewers to appreciate the difficulty of blending two contrasting disciplines.

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