A biathlon is an athletic competition in which athletes compete in two sports. Although any combination competition could be considered a biathlon, the word is usually used to refer to a combination of skiing and shooting. In addition to being a listed Olympic sport, the biathlon is also very popular in Northern European countries and Russia, where regular competitions are held in addition to qualifying competitions for the Olympics.
Unlike many other combined sports, the biathlon actually tests the abilities of the athletes to confront real world situations. It has its roots in military exercises dating back to the 1700s, in which soldiers would go on long skiing expeditions and hunt for food. Branches of the Norwegian military began to compete in a biathlon format in the late 1700s, and in the 1800s, many nations were fielding biathlon teams in competition. Many Northern European militaries still include a cross country skiing and shooting segment in their training.
In a biathlon, bouts of skiing are broken up by shooting from both standing and prone positions. After skiing a set distance, athletes shoot from shooting lanes, and then resume skiing. Typically, there are four skiing and shooting rounds in a single biathlon. During the ski phase, the athlete wears his or her rifle in a sling mounted to the back of the ski suit, and any style of skiing is permitted. Standings are judged both by the time it take to complete the biathlon, and on target accuracy.
Typically, each biathlete is expected to hit five targets during the shooting phase. 100% accuracy is required, and if athletes do miss a target, they must submit to a penalty. Typically, the penalty is an additional skiing distance in the next skiing round, although in some biathlons, the judges simply add a minute to the ski time for every shot missed, which will impact the time standing of the athlete.
Typically, a biathlon team comes from a nation with seasonal snow pack, as it is difficult to train for a biathlon when no snow is available to ski on. Some countries combine running or swimming and shooting for a different style of biathlon, while some enterprising athletes compete in skating biathlons, either on ice or roller skates. Some biathlons put the athletes in snow shoes, or force them to complete an orienteering course as part of the competition as well, further testing their potential military fitness.