How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Biathlon

Biathlon is that appealing combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting which seems to pop into existence once every four years and disappear for the rest of the cycle. Skiing and shooting sounds simple enough, but there are five separate events within this sport: Individual, Sprint, Pursuit, Mass Start, and Relay. The diversity of these events is what gives us our single impressive detail to watch out for – the penalty for missing a shot during the shooting portion of the biathlon.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

In every form of biathlon, the athletes carry more bullets than there are targets. Although the very best may not miss a single shot during the race, most biathletes will miss one here or there. Athletes who miss a shot face a penalty for doing so.

In the individual biathlon event, the penalty is that a minute gets added to their total time. These individual races are quite long – 20 kilometers for men and 15 for women – so a minute is not an insurmountable penalty, but it’s not great.

In all the other biathlon events, the penalty for missing a shot is different. In the Sprint, Pursuit, Mass Start, and Relay events, any athlete who misses a shot must complete a full lap of a small, 150 meter track, before getting back onto the main course for another skiing loop. This is a fiendish penalty, because not only does the racer lose time, they also have to exert more energy, making it harder for them to shed their exhaustion and still their body the next time they get to the shooting gallery. Misses inevitably lead to more misses.

It’s a small detail, but knowing that this difference exists and tracking which penalty applies to the particular biathlon event you are watching will put you in the top 1% of Olympics viewers… at least outside of Scandinavia.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer