Technically speaking, "Biathlon" is any sport that is comprised of two different sports. But the term is so synonymous with the winter discipline combining XC-skiing and target shooting, that virtually all other dual discipline sports use some other term or derivative.


Biathlon began as a training routine for the Norwegian military, and soon spread to other Scandinavian countries. Specific date of origin is unknown. The first recorded competition was held in 1767 when border patrols competed against on another.

Olympic Debut

The first Olympic event combining skiing and shooting was held at the Winter Games in 1924, and it was then called "Military Patrol." It was held as a demonstration sport during ensuing Olympics before gaining official status during the 1960 Olympics after rules were formalized. The first women's Olympic Biathlon was held in 1992 in Albertville.


Biathlons during the 1950s-1960s primarily used high-power rifle cartridges such as .30-06. In 1978 the .22LR rimfire cartridge became the standard. Range distances have varied through the years, ultimately reduced to 50m in 1978 with the advent of mechanical targets at the Lake Placid Games. Today, electronic targets with computer sensors are used in major competitions such as World Cups, World Championships, and the Olympics.


The International Biathlon Union (IBU) standardizes the rules and governs the sport.

A biathlon competition consists of a cross-country ski race, which is broken up by either two or four rounds of shooting. Any cross-country skiing technique is permitted in biathlon, so the free technique is mostly used. Skis must be at least 4 cm less than the height of the skier. Half of the shooting is done from the prone position, the other half of the shooting is done while standing. Each shooting round has five targets. If the shooting performance is lacking, extra distance or time is added to the contestant's total. The lowest total time wins.

Types of Biathlons

Individual race is 20 km (15 km for women) with 4 shooting times for a total of 20 targets. Each missed target incurs a penalty, frequently one minute added to the total.

Sprint is a 10 km race (7.5 km for women) with 2 shooting times for a total of 10 targets. Each missed target incurs a penalty, usually a 150 m additional skiing loop.

Pursuit uses time differences from a prior sprint race, the idea that the biathlete "pursues" the skier in front. Distance is 12.5 km (10 km for women) with 4 shooting times. Each missed target incurs a penalty loop of 150 m. First across the finish line wins.

Mass start is just what it sounds like, everybody starts at the same time. First across the finish line wins. Race is 15 km (12.5 km for women) with four shooting times and a 150 m penalty loop for each miss.

Relay uses four biathletes, who each ski 7.5 km (6 km for women), with two shooting rounds and penalties. The first-leg starts all at the same time, and every biathlete must touch the team's next-leg participant to complete the changeover.

Mixed relay is similar to relay, but mixes men and women. The first and second legs are completed by women; the third and fourth by men. Each leg is 6 km. This is the "newest" form of biathlon competition.

Other Forms of Biathlon

Much lesser-known forms include Archery Biathlon which is just what it sounds like, and is also known as Ski Archery. Primitive Biathlon replaces skis with snowshoes.

Key Links...

  • This is the overall website for both governing bodies, IBU and EBU.
  • Seems to be a US based hub for the sport, and a hub for the US National Team.
  • National governing body for the sport of biathlon in the USA.
  • also known as "Allen's Biathlon Page," this is an excellent resource offered by an individual enthusiast. Lots of training tips, info, good site.
  • just like it sounds, governing body for Canadian Biathletes.

Masthead photos used by permission:
Ralf Roletschek
Creative Commons
US Army/public domain
Erik Charlton.