How Exciting Is The Biathlon?

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 8 2012 @ 3:07pm

by Chris Bodenner

A reader does his best to get you psyched:

Re: The Sex Appeal Competition, Ctd: "In the winter, it's downhill, ski jumping, bobsledding, speed skating, and the like. Cross country? Biathlon? Eh, not so much."

Completely wrong.  Biathlon has been my favorite Winter Olympics sport for a decade, ever since the Eurosport coverage of the Salt Lake games was the only English-language TV programming in my Italian hotel room.  It's tremendously exciting once you understand the rules, and perfect material for a live television broadcast.

Biathlon is a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting.  It used to be called military patrol and the basic goal is to be Simo Hayha.  Competitors sling a rifle over their back, ski a two-mile lap, arrive at the shooting area, fire off five shots at the target, sling the rifle back over their back and head out onto the course for another lap. Repeat five times or so.  

Granted, the skiing is boring, but the excitement comes at the firing range because racing and shooting are polar opposites and each cycle at the range shakes up the race order.

Cross country skiing is insanely aerobic; your lungs are taking in as much oxygen and expelling as much CO2 as possible with each breath and your heart is pumping every last red blood cell out the muscles to keep going.  When you arrive at the firing range, you heart rate has skyrocketed but to fire accurately you have to somehow settle down, regain control of your breathing and heart rate, relax and compose your focus to shoot accurately.  Added to that is the pressure to shoot quickly, so that you can get back out on the course for the next lap.  

Finally, there is the added risk that every miss means a 200 meter penalty lap around a short loop next the firing range. Get off all five shots quickly but miss two and you're paying for it by adding an extra quarter mile to your race.  Take too long and the guy who came into the range behind you may finish before you, get back onto the course first and jump ahead of you in the race standings, taking your medal with him.  The five minutes or so from when the mass of racers approaches the firing range, settles into their shooting positions, make their shots and then set off on the course again is hectic, tense and very exciting.

And from the television exec's perspective, those boring interludes during the skiing lap are perfectly timed for a commercial break. Just leave enough time before for the announcers to build up the drama to each round at the firing range and after for them to recap the jumbled race standings.

Update from a reader:

The reference to Simon Hayha might not resonant with non-history buffs.  He's the greatest sniper in history.  He was a Finnish soldier who killed hundreds of Red Army soldiers during the Finno-Russian War in 1939. He was known as "white death" because of the white winter suit he wore to bury down in the snow.  And he didn't even use a scope!  Didn't want it to cause a reflection in the flat northern light of a Scandinavian winter.