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Originally published December 21, 2009 at 3:33 PM | Page modified December 21, 2009 at 3:33 PM

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Biathlon | Winter Olympics Spectator's Guide

An excerpt from "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games" by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Guide to the Winter Olympics

Prepare for the 2010 Games with excerpts and spectator's guides from "The Winter Olympics," by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.

Excerpt chapters

Olympics Spectator's Guide

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Biathlon combines cross-country skiing and target shooting in a unique combination of raw physical strength and fine motor skills.

Field of Play

Courses for biathlon, skied predominantly in the freestyle fashion, are very similar to cross-country courses. In fact, many of the courses are shared. The difference, obviously, is that biathlon courses, instead of looping through a grandstand area with an open oval during the middle of the race, enter a shooting range where the skier must stop, remove his or her rifle from a sling, and fire shots from standing and prone positions.

As in cross-country racing, biathlons are broken into individual starts, group starts, sprints, relays, and pursuits. Men’s events at the 2010 Games are the 10-kilometer sprint, 12.5-kilometer pursuit, 15-kilometer mass start, 20-kilometer individual, and 4x7.5-kilometer relay. Women’s events are the 7.5-kilometer sprint, 10-kilometer pursuit, 15-kilometer individual, 12.5-kilometer mass start, and 4x5-kilometer relay.

Format, Rules, and Strategy

In the shooting portions of biathlon races, athletes alternate between standing and lying chest down on the ground to shoot a small-bore rifle at targets 50 meters away. For standing shots, targets—round black dots—are about the size of a compact disc. For prone shots, they’re about the size of a silver dollar. Biathletes know instantly when they’ve hit one, because the black surface turns white.

For every shot that misses the target, a distance or time penalty is assessed (usually one minute or once around a 150-meter penalty loop near the shooting range). The biathlete with the lowest ski time, start to finish, is the winner.

The challenge is obvious: It’s difficult enough to hit small targets, given difficulties such as temperature, wind, and light conditions, in outdoor shooting ranges when rested. But biathletes enter the shooting range breathing extremely heavily, and they must slow their heart rate and chest contractions enough to shoot at small targets half a football field away. The sport, a throwback to ancient hunting techniques and military training, allows athletes to shave time by taking fewer breaths between rifle shots. But doing so risks missing the target, which leads to penalty laps.

Similarly, biathletes often attempt to slow their heart rates by slowing down and “easing in” to the shooting range (they shoot two to four times, depending on the race distance), which typically improves marksmanship. But if they slow down too much, they risk being left behind in total cumulative time.

It’s a fine balance, and biathlon is one of the few sports that utilizes both the aerobic-churning power of large muscle groups and the fine-motor skills of the hands and eyes. Psychological toughness comes into play as well: Skiers who miss targets during the shooting phase leave for their next arduous ski lap feeling bummed out. It’s tough to rally from a poor rifle performance.

This is clearly not a sport for the faint of heart, which explains why many modern biathletes are active members of the military with special training regimens.

Training and Equipment

Biathletes’ training is similar to that for cross-country skiers, but they face the added obstacle of having to adjust their heart rates at regular intervals along the course. Athletes thus focus on speed of recovery after skiing prescribed distances—a goal that can be carefully measured in a sports lab using treadmills and heart-rate monitors.

Biathletes use the same skis, poles, and suits as freestyle cross-country ski racers. Skis have to be at least as tall as the athlete minus 4 centimeters. Poles must not be longer than the athlete’s height.

The .22 caliber rifle is lightweight and usually uses a five-bullet magazine. It’s carried in a long sling over the skier’s back

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