Taking Aim At the Biathlon (Diversion, February 2002)


I’ve assumed some strange positions while on assignment for Diversion, but this had to be one of the ungainliest.  I was sprawled prostrate on the snow, my legs splayed in a wide V to prevent my skis from getting tangled.  A pair of ski poles poked at my pelvis and a .22 caliber target rifle was cuddled next to my cheek.


I leaned on my elbows and hefted the rifle.  Nine and a half pounds is hard enough to keep steady, but the real problem was that I was panting like a sheepdog in a sauna and my pulse was bursting out of my bellybutton.  That’s a normal reaction to cross-country skiing 2.5kilometers at an all-out sprint, but it’s not conducive to lining up on a 1.6-inch target 50 meters away and holding it in the sights long enough to shoot it. There were five targets.  I had five shots in my cartridge.  As an added incentive to good marksmanship, I was told that I’d have to ski a 150m penalty loop for every shot I missed.


After imitating Annie Oakley, I was then expected to bounce back to my feet with a spring-loaded push-up while blindly grabbing the pelvis-crunching ski poles (when you’re lying on them, you can’t lose them, I was told), sling the rifle between my shoulder blades and sprint off for another 2.5km, after which I’d get another shot at the targets, only this time standing up.  And if you think it’s difficult to shoot straight while panting and pulsing lying down, just try it when the only support for your suddenly extremely weighty weapon is the sharp point of your elbow auguring into your hip.


For complete authenticity, I would have to repeat the entire process.


And that, dear reader, is how I came to have the utmost respect for the biathlon, a sport that’s been described as bounding up 25 flights of stairs at gazelle-like speed, then trying to thread a needle five times in a row without once missing the hole.


So why should you care about an arcane Olympic sport dominated by Norwegians, Swedes, Russians and Germans, who are so gaga about it that the European Broadcast Union threatened to cut its coverage of women’s downhill skiing if the Salt Lake City coordinators didn’t reschedule the event so it wouldn’t conflict with the first day of the biathlon?


I’ll give you two reasons:  It’s not as arcane as it might seem.  And this could be the first time that the United States grabs a place on the medal podium.


“As far as ski speed goes, we’re one of the fastest teams in the world,” says U.S. team member David Gieck.  Their shooting isn’t exactly shy either. At last year’s World Cup, two of Gieck’s colleagues, Jeremy Teela, and Jay Hakkinen, finished in the top ten in different events.  Teela capped off the Cup competition by coming in 9th overall.  He had missed one target in the final race.


The word “biathlon” comes from the Greek for “two contests.” Two more diametrically opposed sets of skills couldn’t be imagined.   Champion biathletes combine Lance Armstrong’s aerobic capacity and ability to endure physical pain with the intense concentration and deft touch of Tiger Woods taking a putt.  While on skis, athletes floor the accelerator to finish the race in the least amount of time; when they shoot, they throttle back to a state of complete calm and total focus.


Yet this sport gets less press coverage in the United States than curling or ski jumping.  Which is ironic, because unlike shoving a cast-iron kettle around an ice rink with a push broom or leaping off a long ramp for no other reason than to prove you can land without breaking a leg, biathlon is one winter sport that actually makes sense.


It originated in Northern Europe, where hardy hunters strapped skis on their feet and weapons on their back and took off in pursuit of their prey.  Civilization being what it is, things evolved:  the hunters became soldiers, the weapons became rifles and the result was the creation of army ski troops.  (Many U.S. team members are in the Army Reserves or the National Guard.)  Biathlon’s military bent led to its being banned from post-war Olympic competition (it had been a demonstration sport in the 1924, 1928 and 1936 games) but it was rehabilitated for the Squaw Valley Games in 1960 and has distributed medals ever since.



Here’s a guide of what to look for:


What do they do?

There are four men’s and four women’s biathlon events that will be held between February 11th and February 20th in Soldier Hollow, an open, largely treeless site on the edge of Wasatch Mountain State Park.  (The tree-free aspect is important so that you can see the skiers’ progress as they whiz around the course.)  All the events combine skiing and target shooting in different combinations.  Three of the four events are for individuals.  In the sprint, the athletes zip around the course three times, shooting prone once and standing once, for a total of 7.5 km for women and 10 km for men.  The individual competition duplicates the sprint, except that the distances and the shooting sequences are doubled. The pursuit, making its Olympic debut at Salt Lake City, is not quite what it sounds like (although one team coach at the national trials showed off a jacket decorated on the back with five plugged targets and claimed it happened in the pursuit).  The top 30 men and women from the sprint begin at intervals based on their finish times in that competition and chase each other around five laps, with the usual stops for shooting. The fast-paced relay sends four-person teams to cover the same ground as the sprint.


Which comes first, the skiing or the shooting?

Skiing comes first, says Terry Morse, a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team.  “If you don’t have the engine and the technical capacity to ski well, there’s no way you can be fast enough to be world class.”


However, biathlon races are won and lost on the rifle range, where each missed shot means a penalty ski loop or added time.  Comments Morse, “I don’t know of anyone who has shot more than four minutes of penalty and won the Olympics.”


How do they manage the pulsing and panting?

When Morse was competing, biathletes used yogic breathing and visualization to drop their heart rates from nearly 200 on the ski loop to 120 on the rifle range.  These days, the philosophy is that suddenly slower heart rates shove through so much blood on each beat that the athlete’s chest—and rifle barrel—would actually heave less at 165 beats per minute than at 120.  “You learn to shoot with the barrel movement,” explains Jeremy Teela, who begins blasting away while his heart is still pumping at 175 beats a minute (his resting pulse is 36).


The key is not such much pulse control as breath control.  Teela starts to slow and deepen his breathing 100 meters before the rifle range.  Once he takes his position, he inhales and sights just below the target—about the size of a CD for the standing position and barely the size of a quarter for the more stable prone position. He squeezes the trigger as the exhalation brings the target into the sight; the key is to shoot before the carbon dioxide build-up at the end of the exhale affects his aim. Taking one shot per breath, he’s in and out of the range in 40 seconds for the prone position, 30 seconds standing.


Are there any other trade secrets?

Biathletes have the ski stuff down:  They know exactly where on the course to switch their poling technique, when to cut a corner to gain a half a second and which snow is likely to be the slickest. Smart shooters jockey for the first two lanes, where the trees and berm offer the most protection from wind gusts that could shift their shots.  They make their shooting as bulletproof as possible by literally dialing in the target’s coordinates with a knob that adjusts the rifle’s sight in tiny increments.  Each twist of the knob makes a clicking sound, and the number and type of clicks can make the difference between a perfect score or a penalty lap.


Here’s how it works: The rifle range is divided into lanes, each marked with little red flags indicating the direction of the wind.  Jay Hakkinen, who, by the way, is practically blind without his contact lenses, can look at the flags and immediately know to adjust his sights by three clicks.  A coach stands by as he shoots to evaluate the pattern of misses and radios the news to an assistant out on an uphill section of the course.  As the athlete slows down for the incline, the assistant runs along, shouting, “Missed at 9 o’clock!” or “Two clicks to the left!”


If I need to take a bathroom break, when should I do it?

Our advice:  Hold it.  Biathlon competition is a nonstop cliffhanger.  “Everyone else can miss a target in the last loop and you shoot clean,” says Teela.  “Anything can happen.  Nothing is complete until the finish.”


You’ve told us about the biathlon.  How about the biathletes?

The American Olympic team was named after we went to press, so we didn’t know who made the roster.  However, we can tell you this:  Expect to see a lot of blue eyes, because all the best shooters have them.  And don’t take a biathlete out to dinner unless he or she is paying.  They burn so much energy that Jill Krause, an Olympic hopeful, was barred from an all-you-can eat pizza buffet because she vacuumed it clean.


The average age of the U.S. team is about 25.  Isn’t that kind of old for an Olympic athlete?

Not for a biathlete.  Because the sport combines both aerobic and anaerobic activities with mental skills that come with maturity, the peak years for biathletes are between 27 and 32.  “We’re the youngest team in the world,” claims David Gieck.  In other words, if they don’t medal in Salt Lake City, look for them in 2006.



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