The word biathlon is from the Greek word meaning "two tests". The combination of skiing and shooting used in the sport today is founded on a tradition of hunting, stemming back over four thousand years.
Biathlon most likely started as a means of survival. A hunter ran after an animal and hurled an implement at it. Success was measured by the regularity of food on the family table. By 2000 BC the hunt was conducted on skis. Norwegian rock carvings provide this information. There are numerous milestones in the development of biathlon, but web page space keeps us limited to some key time points.
In 1767 the first recorded biathlon competition took place between “ski-runner” companies guarding the Swedish-Norwegian border. In 1861 the first biathlon club was established in Trysil, Norway (Trysil Rifle and Ski Club) for promoting national defence in the Trysil area. By 1924 military patrols were included as a demonstration sport at the First Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France. Many people are aware of the exploits of border patrols on skis during World War II and there are many citizens of Canada (and the US) from northern Europe who still remember this first-hand! While most North Americans will have visions of Germans and Scandinavians clashing on snow covered mountain tops, many Finns in Ontario are quick to remind you of the clashes between Finland and Russia. For those of you who get to watch classic old movies on television “The Heroes of Telemark” is the one of the most gripping stories from WW II that has a beautiful ski chase.
In 1958 the Union International de Pentathlon Moderne et Biathlon (UIPMB) formed as the governing body of biathlon and the modern pentathlon. Today biathlon and modern pentathlon have separated into their own organizations; the IBU (International Biathlon Union) now governs biathlon.
At Squaw Valley, USA the first biathlon competitions included in a Winter Olympics were held (1960). By 1967 the first Junior Men’s World Championships were held. In 1968 Canada sent its first biathlon team to the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France. It was not until 1984 that the first Women’s World Championship was held in Voss, Norway and not until the 1992 Winter Olympics that the Women’s competitions became part of the Games (where Myriam Bedard won her Bronze medal). The Junior Women gained their first World Championship in 1989.
The competitions have changed over the decades. Originally four shooting ranges were incorporated into the 20km event — each with a different distance so that athletes were always having to recalibrate their sights. In 1966 the first change to the range was made: a single 150m full-bore range. And breakable targets were instituted for the relay competition. The breakable targets were round pieces of white coloured glass that shattered when struck. If you’re a James Bond buff there’s a bit of biathlon in the movie “For Your Eyes Only”. The biathlete is portrayed as the East German bad guy, but you get to see him shooting at these breakable targets near the beginning of the movie. Please don’t take his skiing or shooting seriously, it is after all only a movie!
Up to 1978 large-bore rifles were used. From 1978 to today the .22 calibre small-bore rifle has been used. The shooting range was reduced to 50 meters in length and the targets appropriately scaled down to a 12 centimetre aiming circle with the centre 4cm the scoring area for prone (laying down) shooting and 12cm for the standing shooting. It should be noted that until 1980 the targets were either breakable glass, or most common, paper targets. 1980 marked the turning point for the use of mechanical targets for scoring; this coincided with the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Games. Today the aiming circle on mechanical targets is 115 millimetres with the 115mm the scoring area for standing and the centre 45mm for prone; paper targets have a 110mm aiming circle with the 110mm the scoring area for standing and 40mm the scoring area for prone. At most elite competition in Europe electronic targets are now used. However, due to cost most competition sites still use the mechanical targets — even the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics had mechanical targets (which worked very well by the way). If you get the notion that the target seems large try placing an 11.5cm circle (~4-1/2 inches) on a wall and stepping back 50m (~164 feet) – looks kinda small now doesn’t it? And realize too that’s only the aiming mark; for prone the scoring portion is the centre 4.5cm (~1-3/4 inches)!
1987 gave great hope to American biathletes as Josh Thomson, in a World Cup race at Lake Placid, won a silver medal. This was the first North American medal at a World Cup.
In 1991 Myriam Bedard became the first Canadian to win a World Cup event and was the overall points winner that season. In 1992 Myriam Bedard won a Bronze medal at the Albertville, France, Olympics. Myriam continued her success in 1994 with a Double Gold at the Lillehammer, Norway, Olympics: the 15km and the 7.5km. No other North American has ever done so well in the nordic sports.