Biathlon combines skiing and shooting.
If British spy-movie legend James Bond were real, the winter sport he’d be mostly likely to compete in would be biathlon.
In fact, I’m fairly certain one or more of the 23 Bond films has already featured a form of biathlon in one way or another, though the filmmakers probably mingled in a few other Bondesque things like vodka martinis, pithy one-liners and womanizing, too.
Regardless, biathlon has to be considered the original extreme winter sport. Long before snowboarders were flying high through the air and spinning around like whirling dervishes, biathletes were running around in the snow and shooting things with rifles.
Now that’s extreme.
Get ready for all the action with our complete guide to Olympic biathlon.
Biathlon is unlike any other sport.
Biathlon combines the endurance of cross-country skiing with the precision of target shooting. The sport is most popular in European nations where events are more regularly televised than they are in the Western Hemisphere.
Norway, Germany and Russia have dominated Olympic biathlon by winning 46 of the 64 events since the sport made its debut 54 years ago.
The three nations are expected to continue the trend in Sochi, though France is also expected to contend behind superstar Martin Fourcade.
Biathlon has a rich history.
Biathlon has been part of the Olympic program since 1960. The first women’s events happened in 1992. The sport is believed to have originated from ancient hunting practices of northern Europeans, especially in Scandinavia.
The very first biathlons took place in the late 1700s and were primarily military exercises. In fact, for over 150 years, most participants had some kind of background in the military. It was not until after World War II (1939-1945) that the sport began cultivating specifically trained athletes.
Modern rules were established over time through the modern sport’s formative years, 1968-1988. For example, athletes could use different calibers of rifles until 1978, when the small, lightweight, .22-caliber one used today became the official rifle of competition.
The 1980s and 1990s were highlighted by an increased number of competitors, most notably the inclusion of women.
It's almost time.
Sochi Olympic Biathlon competitions will take place over a 15-day period. The schedule of events is listed below.
February 8: Men's 10-kilometer Sprint, 9:30 a.m. ET
February 9: Women's 7.5km Sprint, 9:30 a.m. ET
February 10: Men's 12.5km Pursuit, 10 a.m. ET
February 11: Women's 10km Pursuit, 10 a.m. ET
February 13: Men's Individual 20km, 9 a.m. ET
February 14: Women's 15km Individual, 9 a.m. ET
February 16: Men's 15km Mass Start, 10 a.m. ET
February 17: Women's 12.5km Mass Start, 10 a.m. ET
February 19: 2x6km Women + 2x7.5km Men Mixed Relay, 9:30 a.m. ET
February 21: Women's 4x6km Relay, 9:30 a.m. ET
February 22: Men's 4x7.5km Relay, 9:30 a.m. ET
Bjoerndalen has won 50 medals.
The two best biathletes in the world today are France’s Martin Fourcade for the men, and Norway's Tora Berger for the women. Both competitors could make huge statements in Sochi.
Meanwhile, Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, age 40, of Norway, is the sport’s premier competitor on the world’s best team. Nicknamed “The Cannibal,” Bjoerndalen has won 50 medals at major biathlon championships including six golds and 11 in total at the Olympics. He’s likely to add to that total at Sochi.
Even though some of it was technically trucked in, the home-snow advantage might give Russia a leg up on the competition. If so, expect men Anton Shipulin and Evgeny Ustyugov to make some noise, as well as Olga Zaitseva of the women’s team.
For the United States, three-time Olympians Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey hope to land on the podium on the men’s side. If they do, they’ll be the country’s first-ever Olympic biathlon medalists. The U.S. women are lead by the Lanny Barnes, who was added the team when her older sister, Tracy, gave up her spot to her sister.
Berger sets the pace for the women.
What Is it: Competitors ski three loops with two bouts of shooting. Men ski a total of 10 kilometers. Women a total of 7.5 km. Competitors start at 30-second intervals. The fastest time gets the win.
Key Men's Storyline: Getting off to a good start via the sprint is important to those hoping to grab gold in pursuit as well. Athlete starts are based on results in the sprint. Double medalists are a regularity. While the three power countries will look to make their marks in both, don’t be surprised if France’s Fourcade is the one to make his way atop the podium. Other favorites include Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway and Germany’s Arnd Peiffer.
Key Women's Storyline: Norway’s Berger leads the sprint field for the women. Four years ago, Berger helped her country grab a milestone no other has yet attained. By winning the 15-kilometer individual event at Vancouver in 2010 and becoming Norway’s first Olympic women’s biathlon champion, Berger secured the country’s 100th Olympic Winter Games gold medal.
Other podium favorites include Darya Domracheva of Belarus and Ukraine’s Olena Pidhrushna, who will join the men in hoping to double-up medals in both sprint and pursuit.
Can Russia win pursuit?
What is it: Competitors ski five laps in a race against each other with four bouts of shooting. Unlike sprint, which is done by time, the winner of pursuit is simply the first competitor to cross the finish line. Since start order is based on the results of the sprint competition, the pursuit winners are usually those who finished well in sprint. Men ski a total of 12.5 kilometers. Women ski 10 kilometers.
Key Men's Storyline: The men’s favorites in the sprint should also do well in pursuit. What will be interesting, though, is to see how the Russians do in an event based on actual racing rather than a stopwatch. Can cheers from the crowd drive someone like Russia’s Shipulin up onto the podium?
Key Women's Storyline: Like the men, the women who do well in the sprint should fare well in pursuit, too. The winner of gold at the 2013 World Championships, Norway's Berger, is expected to grab gold at Sochi, too. But if she fails to do it, someone like Ukraine’s Pidhrushna might impress the near-home crowd by making it to the top.
Burke is Team USA's only shot at the podium.
What Is it: Competitors ski five loops with four bouts of shooting. Each person starts at 30-second intervals. The fastest time wins. Men ski a total 20 kilometers. Women ski 15 kilometers.
Key Men's Storyline: If Team USA is to capture a medal at Sochi, it will likely be in this event. Silver medalist from the 2013 World Championships, Burke, finished second to France’s Fourcade, who will be the odds-on favorite to take gold at Sochi. Can Burke break through to the podium? Will Fourcade continue his dominance?
Key Women's Storyline: Again, Norway’s Berger will be one of the favorites in this event. Her fiercest competition will be Darya Domracheva of Belarus and Anastasia Kuzmina of Slovakia. All three are likely to end up on the podium in one sort of order or another. A dark-horse candidate to show something at Sochi is Team USA’s Barnes. Individual is her best event.
Fourcade is the best male biathlete in the world.
What Is it: In mass start, the 30 competitors all start simultaneously. Competitors ski five laps with four bouts of shooting. The first person to cross the finish line is the winner. Men ski 15 kilometers. Women ski a total of 12.5 kilometers.
Key Men's Storyline: Norway’s Tarjei Boe and Emil Hegle Svendsen both medaled at the 2013 World Championships, as did Russia’s Shipulin. But most experts predict France’s Fourcade to vie for the top podium spot here, too.
Key Women's Storyline: The must-watch event of biathlon will be the women’s mass start. Norway’s Berger and Belarus' Domracheva battled for gold at the 2013 World Championships and are expected to do the same at Sochi. Can Berger sweep the individual events? Or will Domracheva steal her thunder?
Mixed relay makes its first Olympic appearance this year.
What Is it: In team relay, each four-member team skis three loops with two bouts of shooting. Team members start in handover zones, where arriving athletes have to touch by hand in order for the next athlete to start. The first final skier to reach the finish line is the winner. Each male team member skis a total of 7.5 kilometers. Each female team member skis 6 kilometers.
Key Men's Storyline: Norway, France and Germany are probably the best of the men’s teams. But Russia has a legitimate shot at gold at Sochi, where the home crowd might propel them to victory. Veteran Bjoerndalen, in his sixth Olympics, will hope to help Norway finish on top.
Key Women's Storyline: Norway’s Berger led the women to gold at the 2013 World Championships, ahead of Italy and Ukraine. Sochi will be a five-way battle, though, including those squads as well as Germany and Russia.
Key Mixed Storyline: This will be the first time mixed relay is featured at the Olympics. As you can guess, the world’s best teams by far hail from Norway, led by Berger, and France, led by Fourcade. The teams came to the finish line neck-and-neck at the 2013 World Championships. Will Sochi be the same?
Lanny made Team USA because her sister gave up her spot.
Don’t expect Team USA to make it to the podium in any biathlon event in Sochi. While the sport has grown exponentially over the years, the U.S. is still playing catch-up to the European countries, where the sport originated.
Still, expect plenty of human interest stories to emerge from the Games; one of the more universal stories has to be two-time Olympian Lanny Barnes competing for the USA women in place of her sister.
Lanny fell ill during the qualifying race and finished No. 6. Tracey, who believes Lanny had a better overall season than her, finished No. 5 but withdrew so her sister could have her spot in Sochi.
How will Barnes perform after such a gesture? Will it help or hinder her? Will Lanny’s two previous Olympic appearances help her medal in Sochi?
Meanwhile, the men are led by Tim Burke, who also competed in the two Olympics prior. Burke might be peaking at the right time. He became just the second American man ever to win a World Championships medal when he claimed silver in the 20-kilometer individual competition last year. Burke has also accumulated multiple podium finishes on the World Cup tour, making him the most likely American to find himself on the podium at Sochi.
The full 10-person team is Lowell Bailey, Lake Placid, N.Y. (2006, 2010 Olympian); Lanny Barnes, Durango, Colo. (2006, 2010 Olympian); Tim Burke of Paul Smiths, N.Y. (2006, 2010 Olympian); Annelies Cook, Saranac Lake, N.Y.; Russell Currier, Stockholm, Maine; Sean Doherty, Center Conway, N.H.; Hannah Dreissigacker, Morrisville, Vt.; Susan Dunklee, Barton, Vt.; Leif Nordgren, Marine, Minn.; and Sara Studebaker, Boise, Idaho (2010 Olympian).
Will old favorites reign? Or new?
According to Olympic medal prediction service Infostrada, the biathlon winners in Sochi are expected be as follows:
Men's 10km Sprint
Gold: Martin Fourcade (France), Silver: Emil Hegle Svendsen (Norway), Bronze: Arnd Peiffer (Germany)
Women's 7.5km Sprint
1. Tora Berger (Norway), 2. Darya Domracheva (Belarus), 3. Olena Pidhrushna (Ukraine)
Men's 12.5km Pursuit
1. Martin Fourcade (France), 2. Emil Hegle Svendsen (Norway), 3. Anton Shipulin (Russia)
Women's 10km Pursuit
1. Tora Berger (Norway), 2. Darya Domracheva (Belarus), 3. Kaisa Makarainen (Finland)
Men's 20km Individual
1. Martin Fourcade (France), 2. Jakov Fak (Slovenia), 3. Andreas Birnbacher (Germany)
Women's 15km Individual
1. Tora Berger (Norway), 2. Darya Domracheva (Belarus), Anastasia Kuzmina (Slovakia)
Men's 15km Mass Start
1. Martin Fourcade (France), 2. Tarjei Boe (Norway), 3. Emil Hegle Svendsen (Norway)
Women's 12.5km Mass Start
1. Tora Berger (Norway), 2. Darya Domracheva (Belarus), 3. Kaisa Makarainen (Finland)
Mixed 4x6km/7.5km Relay
1. Norway, 2. France, 3. Czech Republic
Women's 4x6km Relay
1. Germany, 2. Norway, 3. Ukraine
Men's 4x7.5km Relay
1. Norway, 2. Russia, 3. Germany