It first started in the mid-18th Century with ironically some Swedish and Norwegian border guards holding a competition, beginning biathlon’s long association with the military. Biathlon disguised as a sport called military patrol was a medal sport at the 1924 Chamonix Olympic Winter Games with four-man teams skiing in uniforms, with rifles and backpacks on a 30 km course followed by a shooting contest. The first and only Military Patrol medals went to Switzerland, Finland and France. It appeared a few more times as a demonstration sport at the OWG and then was mostly forgotten outside of military circles.
1958 was a big year for the modern sport. Under the auspices of the UIMPB (Union Internationale Moderne Pentathlon et Biathlon), the international governing body, Saalfelden, Austria hosted the first “Weltmeisterschaft Olympischer Biathlon” on March 2. Adolf Wiklund of Sweden became the first World Champion in the only competition at that time, the 20 km individual. These first championships were meant as a dress rehearsal for the sport’s OWG debut two years later at the Squaw Valley Olympic Winter Games. 30 competitors vied for the first Olympic Biathlon Gold medal, with another Swede Klas Lestander taking the historic title.
Little changed in the sport in the sixties: the 20 km of classic skiing was the only competition, using several shooting ranges deep in the forest, big-bore 30.06 military rifles were standard, shooting at targets 100-250 meters away that were paper, later balloons and even glass plates. The 1966 World Championships program included the relay for the first time relay with Norway taking the first WCH title. The 1968 Grenoble OWG saw the first relay Gold medal awarded to the Soviet Union, whose teams would win every OWG Relay Gold medal through 1988.
The Seventies saw biathlon start to resemble the sport of today. The sprint was added to the World Championships in 1976, making its debut in the 1980 Lake Placid OWG. Big-bore rifles fell by the wayside in 1978 with the .22 caliber rifle of today taking over. Along with the .22 caliber rifle came the modern shooting range with targets at 50 meters, suddenly making the sport more accessible and spectator friendly. The clap-and-fall biathlon target of today was developed and first produced by the Kurvinen company in 1979.
Biathlon’s ongoing revolution evolved rapidly in the 1980’s. The Lake Placed OWG introduced the “modern” 50-meter stadium with the clap-and-fall metal targets, the .22 caliber user-friendly rifles and the sprint to the world-wide audience. Frank Ullrich won the first Olympic Sprint Gold medal. Women’s competitions came to biathlon in 1981with the ladies holding their first World Championships in 1984 at Chamonix. Typical of the times, the women competed in a three-stage 10 km individual and a 5 km sprint. Additionally, the World Cup circuit made its debut in the 1983/84 season with five venues including Ruhpolding and Oberhof in January and the season closing at, of course, Holmenkollen.
After getting a solid start in the eighties, women’s competitions moved to center stage, making their debut the 1992 Albertville OWG. Anfissa Reztsova opened the Games winning the Sprint Gold medal, while Antje (Misersky) Harvey won the then-modernized 15 km individual. Albertville also saw some of the biggest biathlon stars like Ricco Gross and Sven Fischer taking their first Olympic medals. 1993 was a huge turning point for biathlon when after years of operating as a “little brother” part of the UIMPB, the biathlon section declared its independence on July 2, 1993 in London England with 57 founding members. In 1998, the IBU was recognized by the IOC. The IBU then opened its headquarters in Salzburg the next year.
With biathlon gaining popularity, the pursuit made its debut in the 1996/97 season, adding a new fast-paced easy to follow competition to the World Cup program. The first World Cup pursuit winners were Sven Fischer and Simona Greiner Petter-Memm. That season saw the former cross-country skier Magdalena Forsberg blossomed into the marquee women’s star, winning her first of six consecutive Women’s World Cup Total Score titles.
The next season, a young guy named Ole Einar Björndalen was leading the Nagano Olympic Winter Games Sprint when it was cancelled mid-competition due to heavy snowfall that buried the Nozawa Onsen venue almost daily. The next day, he picked up right where he left off, won his first Olympic Gold medal, kickstarting a legendary career.
Biathlon at the turn of the century looked a lot like it does today. Television beamed the sport across Europe and round the world. Millions of fans were glued to their TVs or packed into ever-growing outdoor stadiums every time “King” Ole, Kati Wilhelm, Uschi Disl, Raphael and Liv Grete Poirée plus a host of instantly recognizable biathlon stars showed on weekend afternoons from Oestersund, Oslo, Antholz, Oberhof and Ruhpolding. Electronic targets prevailed offering instant results and updates on the big stadium screens and across their televisions, bringing the fans into the heart of the action.
Bjorndalen, Fischer and Poirée dominated the first decade, with the Norwegian accomplishing a feat that may never be matched, winning four Gold medals at the 2002 Salt Lake OWG. The mass start with its World Cup beginnings in 1999 moved onto the WCH program in 2000 at Holmenkollen, fittingly, Raphael and Liv Grete won the first mass start Gold medals, becoming the first and only to date husband/wife duo to win Gold medals at the IBU WCH. Another new and revolutionary competition, the mixed relay showed up in the mid-2000s with a separate World Championship first conducted at Khanty Mansiysk in 2005. The mixed relay was added to the regular World Championships schedule at the 50th IBU World Championships at Oestersund in 2008.
Biathlon’s appeal grew exponentially in the last 10 years, with older stadiums like Antholz, Oestersund, Oberhof and Ruhpolding modernizing and expanding to accommodate sellout crowds. At the same time, new venues like the huge bowl at Nove Mesto na Moravě attracted tens of thousands of fans as did the new Sylvie Becaert stadium in Annecy Le Grand Bornand, bringing the sport to new audiences. Never sitting on its hands, the IBU has continued to upgrade the sport, adding new competitions like the action-packed single mixed relay that has featured almost every big biathlon star, adding it to the IBU WCH program in 2019. The super sprint continues to develop and will come to the BMW IBU World Cup circuit sooner than later. As part of the sport’s ongoing development, the IBU Junior Cup circuit started in the 2015/16 season, giving the stars of tomorrow more international competition experience than just a single IBU YJWCH each season. It has become a huge hit with more than 100 starters for both men and women at many of the events.
That galaxy of stars continued to grow, with thoughtful, sport-loving Martin Fourcade dominating the men’s scene until he retired and the relaxed Johannes Thingnes Boe took over as the men’s star. Laura Dahlmeier and Magdalena Neuner’s short but brilliant careers made IBU World Championships must-see events. Kaisa Makarainen and Gabriela Soukalova personalities endeared them to fans while Fourcade and Darya Domracheva made Olympic history with multiple Gold medals. Yet when Bjorndalen retired in 2018, he left with a record 13 Olympic Biathlon medals in his trophy case.
Biathlon has come a long way from a few men skiing through the forest, stopping to wax their wooden classic skis along the way and shoot at some balloons to men and women competing side-by-side in a mixed relay in huge stadiums with the competition beamed to audiences around the world, entranced by the most popular winter sport on television. And next up…a new chapter for the history books, Beijing 2022.
Photos: IBU/ Christian Manzoni, Rene Miko, Petr Slavik, Ernst Wukits, archive; US Biathlon/Art Stegen; Dr, John Kelley, NOAA