The biathlon is a winter sport that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. The sport is rooted in the skiing traditions of Scandinavia, where early inhabitants revered the Norse God, Ull, as both their ski and hunting God.
Initially, the combined skills of skiing and rifle marksmanship were developed for the region’s militaries during the 1700s. In 1776 the first recorded biathlon competition took place along the border dividing Norway and Sweden; it was between patrol companies. The first biathlon club, the Trysil Rifle and Ski Club, was established in Norway in 1861. The biathlon was included as a demonstration event at the first Winter Olympics in Chamoinix, France, in 1924 and in 1960 the biathlon was added to the Winter Olympics as an official men’s event. International biathlon competitions for women began in 1981. Today, the biathlon has become a popular sport for men, women, and children with programs and clubs all over the world — including our own Team Soldier Hollow in Midway.
If you were competing in the 1960 Olympic biathlon, you likely carried a rifle loaded with either .30-06 or 7.62x51mm NATO rounds1. (Which interestingly enough, or not, considering the biathlon origins, is the choice round for many hunters.) For those who have never fired such a rifle, to do so accurately requires skill, finesse, and calm. When every muscle of the core, back, arms, and legs is converting oxygen and glycogen to raw power in order to move your skis across snow, the idea of lying on the ground to calmly shoot a target with a rifle conjures a certain echelon of human.
Historically, skiing can only be traced so far before the trail evaporates into time ethereal. Etched by someone 5,000 years ago on the wall of a famous cave in Norway, the image of a person on skis is testament to the mysterious, prehistoric nature of skiing. In Norway, skis were part of the hunting implements.
In today’s competitions, biathletes use .22 caliber rimfire cartridges. The rifle is sighted using “peep sights,” a pairing of an aperture in the rear and a pin at the muzzle. Finally, a skier’s rifle must weigh a minimum of 3.5 Kilograms. Rifles are carried using a split sling, allowing it to go over both shoulders; centering the rifle over the back with minimal sway while the skier races up and down the track; keeping the hand and arms free to use their ski poles.
At intervals the biathlete stops at firing ranges to shoot five targets located 50 meters (164 feet) away. Most races require the competitors to shoot from both standing and prone (lying on the stomach) positions. Target size varies depending on the skier’s position; when standing, shooters aim at an 11.5-cm (4.5-inch) target and while prone contestants shoot at a 4.5-cm (1.8-inch) target. Biathlon’s have been governed by the International Biathlon Union (IBU) since 1993. The IBU authorizes six types of biathlon events—individual, sprint, relay, pursuit, mass start, and team.
Racing traditionally takes place on groomed, snowy tracks. However, as devoted skiers learned to train in summer months using “roller skis” on dry pavement rather than skis over snow, someone figured that biathlon was no longer a winter only event. During the warmer months of the year spectators can watch biathletes compete from the comfort of a warm bleacher with a cold beverage rather than in a parka with a hot cocoa.
It has become increasingly more common, during spring and summer, to see Nordic ski athletes training around the valley, especially near Soldier Hollow and the road around Midway. Soldier Hollow Nordic Center located at Wasatch Mountain State Park is known locally, and internationally, as the site for many of the Nordic ski events of the 2002 winter Olympics. Even their phone number ends in “2002.” Did you know that World Cup and Olympic level athletes train there? As far as biathlon goes, it boasts a very specific shooting range that matches a Nordic facility standard around the world. Heber Valley is often host to some of the world’s top athletes because of this world class Nordic facility; earning the title ‘world class’ is no easy feat. In 2017 Soldier Hollow was awarded the bid for a World Cup Cross Country Ski event. This helped lay the foundation for reaching the top.
Soldier Hollow boasts several coaches with international training. As of this writing, one of those coaches was currently in Sweden at an IBU conference. Zach Hall, the Head Biathlon Coach, shared that, while Soldier Hollow coaches and trains the most elite athletes and maintains the highest coaching standards, it really is about community. Soldier Hollow offers three biathlon programs; the Devo/Devo plus Flex Biathlon, Comp Flex Biathlon, and Masters Biathlon Team. It’s pretty amazing to think that our local kids have the opportunity to not only learn to ski and shoot on the same field as many international elite athletes, but also carry on a tradition that started 300 (or more) years ago — right here in our very own back yard!