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Rules of the game: Biathlon

Biathlon is a Winter Olympics sport based on survival skills needed in the Scandinavian wilderness. Just like out in the wild, every shot counts.

WASHINGTON — Athletes almost always pay for their mistakes in competition. In few other sports is that as immediately apparent as in biathlon

The biathlon is a race that combines two disciplines – cross country skiing and rifle shooting. It’s a sport based on survival skills needed in the Scandinavian wilderness and, just like out in the wild, every shot counts.

The event has roots going back to the first Winter Olympics in 1924 with an event called military patrol. The modern sport was introduced at the 1960 Olympics in what was then Squaw Valley, California.

In Beijing, there are 11 biathlon events – five women’s, five men’s and one mixed relay.


In the sprint race, athletes race in a time trial. The course is divided into thirds by two shooting ranges. Competitors ski to each station where they’ll have five rounds to shoot five targets. For each missed target, athletes take one lap around a 150-meter penalty loop. The athlete with the fastest time through the course wins.


The top 60 finishers from the sprint races qualify for the pursuit race. Start times are staggered based off the leaderboard. In the pursuit, competitors race through four shooting stations, again with five rounds and five targets at each station. Just like in the sprint, every missed target means another 150-meter penalty loop.

Credit: AP
FILE - Sweden's Hanna Oberg crosses the finish line to finish second in the women's Biathlon World Cup 12.5 km mass start event in Nove Mesto na Morave, Czech Republic, March 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)

Mass Start

The mass start event, as the International Olympic Committee puts it, is the most “race-like” event, because unlike the time trial system in the sprint race, all the athletes start at the same time. Starting numbers are determined based off results from other events as well as biathlon World Cup standings. Just like in the pursuit event, there are four target range stops spaced equidistant around the track. You miss, you take a lap.


Each relay event features teams of four and has most of the same rules and penalties as the other events. The main difference in the relay is that each athlete gets three extra bullets per station, if needed, to hit the five targets. But there’s a catch. Each of those extra bullets must be loaded one at a time, costing valuable time on the course. But, if those extra bullets do hit their mark, it can save athletes from running penalty laps. Each relay member is required to complete two shooting sequences.


The individual event is the only biathlon event that doesn’t make athletes ski laps for missing targets. Instead, each missed target adds one minute to the athlete’s time. Fastest time wins.

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