Forgotten Winter Sports—Biathlon

Jessica ChengContributor IDecember 11, 2009

PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 22:  (FRANCE OUT) Vincent Jay #5-1 of France takes fourth place during the IBU Biathlon World Championships Men's Relay event on February 22, 2009 in Pyeongchang, Korea.  (Photo by Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
Agence Zoom/Getty Images

With three months until the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, it’s time to shed a little spotlight on a few forgotten winter sports in America—beginning with Biathlon.

By now, you are probably already thinking either a) “Biathlon? What is it again?” or b) “Who cares?”

Well, that’s okay.

Like most Americans, I don’t know much about biathlon, either. Nor have I watched a competition, save a few minutes out of curiosity during the Salt Lake Olympics.

But I’m going to give it more than just a cursory glance this year. Why? Because it’s a good underdog story in sports. And who doesn’t like a “Miracle on Ice”-like story in the Olympics?

In the world of biathlon, the United States is one big underdog.  The US has racked up 217 medals overall at the Winter Olympics (behind only Norway and tied with the Soviet Union). But not one of the 217 medals has been in biathlon.

The US has never won a medal in biathlon. Not even close. In fact, until early this year, the US didn’t win a medal in any international biathlon event for 17 years.

They now have a few more pieces of hardware, and a good chance to end the medal shutout and compete with perennial winter Olympic power Norway. 

When the biathlon World Cup season kicked off last week in Oestersund, Sweden,  American Tim Burke came away with silver and bronze.

To put some perspective on this achievement—the most medals an American biathlete has won is three, by Josh Thompson over the course of the late 1980s and 1990s.

Burke is already at two, and the 2009-2010 season has only just begun. There are five more World Cup events before the Olympics and there’s no reason to think the 27-year old Burke won’t be collecting a few more podium finishes.

Good showings from Burke’s teammate, Jay Hakkinen, who came in 10th in the 20 km race at the 2006 Winter Olympics and the US team’s top ten finish—ninth in the relay helped the US biathlon team get some extra cash.

The team is getting more support than before from the US Olympic Committee. Its funding has quadrupled from a scanty $250,000 a year to $1 million (still a drop in the bucket compared to the $10 million top countries spend on their teams).

The sport has its origins in Scandinavian countries and combines rifle shooting with cross-country skiing. For a good overview on the sport, check out the Olympics Web site.

While not much more than a blip on the radar in the US, it is surprisingly popular in Europe—it’s the top-rated winter sport on television (beating out, as it seems, the more mainstream alpine skiing).

I don’t expect to convince people that biathlon is as exciting of a sport as football, basketball and other mainstream American sports. All I’m saying is to just give the sport a chance and a little attention during this Olympic and possible breakout season.

Read about the sport, how it’s played, who the top athletes are, how the US team is doing, and perhaps watch for a few moments when the Olympics roll around (or on NBC’s, which hopefully will start posting some video of the current World Cup competitions soon).

You never know what may pique your interests if you give it chance. Two years ago I couldn’t care less about football, or how it was played (and I went to a Big-10 school).

But a bizarre college football season filled with upsets and surprising underdog teams were all it took for me to join the ranks of people glued to college football during the fall season.

Alpine skiing is the marquee skiing event for America and it will remain so. And its biggest names will likely bring home multiple medals as it has done for years.

But surely, a little attention paid to a possible history-making medal in biathlon, one of the “other” skiing sports isn’t too much to ask?