Australia and Olympic Biathlon
Prior to Sochi, Australia had been represented in biathlon by five Olympians across seven Olympics. Having contested every Olympics from Albertville 1992 to Nagano 1998, Kerryn Rim (Pethybridge) is naturally the standout. Rim is the only Australian biathlete to compete at three Games and her best finishes were 21st in the 7.5km sprint and eighth in the 15km individual event in 1994.
Andrew Paul was the first Australian biathlon competitor, competing at the Sarajevo Games in 1984 and the Calgary Games in 1988. Paul’s best result was placing 47th in the 20km at Sarajevo 1984. His wife Sandra Paintin-Paul competed at Albertville 1992 and Lillehammer 1994 with a best result in 1994 placing 40th from a field of 69 in the 7.5km sprint.
With Australia missing out on qualification for the 2002 Games, Cameron Morton became the first Australian biathlete to compete in the 21st century when he was selected to contest the 20km individual and 10km sprint at Torino 2006. He finished 83rd and 82nd respectively. This was not Morton’s first Games experience as he coached Rim during her very successful Nagano campaign. Russian-born 19-year-old Alexei Almoukov represented Australia at the Vancouver 2010 Games in both 10km sprint and 20km individual events. His best result was 78th in the 20km.
Biathlon was developed on the slopes of Scandinavia where people hunted on skis for survival. It first joined the Olympic ranks in 1948 as a demonstration sport in St Moritz. Inspired by modern pentathlon, it was much more involved than it is today, combining cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, shooting, fencing and equestrian.
But the Winter pentathlon evolved into its current ski/shoot form at the 1960 Squaw Valley Games with the men’s 20km individual event. Relay and sprint events were added over the years (relay in 1968, 10km sprint in 1980), and women’s biathlon debuted in Albertville in 1992. Pursuit events were first added in Salt Lake City 2002 and a new mass-start event was introduced for both men and women in Torino 2006- this brings together the 30 best athletes from the World Cup.
There are now 11 events on the Olympic program. The latest addition is the mixed relay, which will be introduced at the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014.
Biathlon involves using the free cross country technique in conjunction with target shooting. Athletes ski loops of the course, stopping each time to fire five shots of a small calibre rifle aiming to hit five targets. Participants rotate shooting from the standing position and prone position (lying down on one’s torso). Target size varies depending on the shooting position - 11.5cm for standing and 4.5cm for prone. The distance between the shooting position and the target is 50 metres. Penalties for missed targets are imposed either as one minute of added time per target for the Individual competition or as a 150m penalty loop - done immediately after each bout of shooting - for all other competitions
There are 11 events on the competition program: men’s and women’s sprint, pursuit, individual, mass start and relays, as well as a mixed relay which has been added for the Sochi 2014 Games.
The individual has the longest skiing distance of all solo biathlon events- 20km for men and 15km for women. Biathletes start at intervals of either 30 seconds or one minute. Men start by skiing 4km and then shooting, continuing the sequence until they have shot four times. Women generally do the same, but with 3km ski loops for their 15km competition.
There is a one minute penalty incurred for every shot missed. For that reason, shooting is more important in the individual competition than other events- where athletes must complete a penalty loop of 150m which takes about 21 to 26 seconds to ski.
The Individual competition takes about 55 minutes to compete for the best competitors.
The sprint is an abbreviated version of the Individual competition and one in which speed is a key factor. Men race 10km, and women 7.5km, each with two shooting rounds - one prone and one standing. For every missed target, a competitor must complete a 150m penalty loop.
With shorter distances and only two bouts of shooting for all classes, the skiing times are around 30 minutes.
The top 60 athletes from the biathlon sprint event qualify for the pursuit. They start in a staggered formation based on their start times from the sprint, with the winner of qualifying starting first and the rest following in the order and time that they finished behind the winner in qualifying. This makes for thrilling racing as you see athletes overtake one another and you can always see who is leading.
Men ski 12.5km and women 10km. Each covers four shooting stages—the first two are taken prone and the second two from a standing position. As with the Sprint competition, athletes ski a 150m penalty loop for each miss.
The Mass Start competition is one of the newest biathlon formats. It covers a distance of 15km for men and 12.5km for women, with four shooting stages, the first two prone and second two standing. In each race, the 30 highest ranked athletes start together simultaneously and take their place at the first shooting stage depending on their starting number. Athletes line up at the remaining shooting stages depending on the order in which they arrived at the firing line. A 150m penalty loop is added for each miss.
The Relay consists of four-person national teams covering 4x7.5km for men and 4x6km for women.
The first competitors from each team start simultaneously, ski 2.5km (2km for Women), shoot prone, ski 2.5km, shoot standing and then continue with the last 2.5km to tag the next team member, or – in the case of the last competitor – ski to the finish line.
Each competitor in a relay competition carries three spare rounds. If all five targets are not knocked down with the first five rounds, the spares must be used. The concept is that because of the intense pressure in the relay, the competitor may wish to shoot extremely fast, and then be able to get away quickly if all five targets are hit. However, if all five targets are not hit with the five rounds in the magazine, the spare rounds must be loaded individually by hand, which takes much more time and which is very difficult under pressure. Penalty laps of 150m are incurred for each missed target.
Sochi will host the first Olympic mixed relay, comprising of two men and two women in each team. Women open the relay, completing the first two legs- each 6km with two rounds of shooting. The men then complete the third and fourth legs which are 7.5km. In other respects, the procedure for the mixed relay competition is as in the above description.