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The year is 1939. Stalin feels good. He just shored up his southern flank, stiff-armed the Japanese to his east, signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler, and collects Baltic states like nesting babushka dolls. But the Soviet Premier needs to take care of one pesky concern: Leningrad is less than 20 miles from the Finnish border. So Stalin does what Stalin does. He constructs a false flag attack, bombs his own troops at a Soviet position near the Finnish border, blames the Finns, and marches 100,000 troops toward Finland, a country with no air force, barely an army, and four million people compared to the USSR’s 170 million. Stalin believes he will crush the Finns easily and quickly. But Stalin does not consider one very important thing: a bunch of dudes on skis with guns.
Outnumbered 10-to-1 and cloaked in white sheets for camouflage, the Finnish ski troops decimate the Soviet invaders on the mountainous terrain. The two-planked snipers become known as “The White Death.” Three months after the attack and down nearly 400,000 troops, Stalin meets the Finns at a treaty table.
This sounds like a Spielberg movie, yet it’s just one chapter in the completely bonkers history of biathlon—a history that makes biathlon the obvious most greatest Olympic event.
The spandex-clad lovechild of cross-country skiing and target shooting may seem like a fringe sport, but for as long as there has been snow, humans have slid on it…with weapons. In the Altai Mountains where China, Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan converge, there are petroglyphs believed to date back 10,000 years, which depict a skier hunting an Ibex. Around 206 BCE, a Chinese scholar of the Han Dynasty wrote about hunters speeding through snowy mountains and flatlands like goats because of their “wooden boards with a hoof-shaped front tip.” Four-thousand-year-old carvings in Norway show people stalking animals on skis.
Flash forward to the 1700s and you find some of the earliest recorded ski competitions are between “ski runner” army companies from Norway and Sweden. Norway formed the first known ski club in 1861, called the “Trysil Rifle and Ski Club.”
Biathlon became a Winter Olympics medal event in 1955, but it was on display at the first Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924 as a “Look at the Cool Stuff Our Military Can Do” event. Today, the Olympic biathlon is an aggressive display of athletic badassery.
Today, there are 11 biathlon events at the Games, from sprint to pursuit to relays. There are mass starts and staggered starts. Distances can be as short as 7.5 kilometers or as long as 30. Skiers must stop at four different shooting locations and hit all five metal targets. If you miss a target with the .22 caliber rifle you ski with on your back, a minute is added to your total time. But in some events, you have to ski a 150-meter penalty loop for each target missed.
Biathletes are sprinting endurance athletes with insane aim; a perfect mixture of cheetah, that old Toyota of yours that just won’t quit, and a sniper. But guess what makes a great sniper? A nearly imperceptible heart beat. So biathletes can lower their heart rates faster than any other athletes. That means the most important muscle in biathlon is your gulldarn heart! Come to think of it, biathlon would make a hell of a premise for a rom-com.
And while the U.S. of A. owes our beloved ski culture and industry to our very own ski troopers, the 10th Mountain Division, and we idolize our John Wayne-esque gun-slinging heroes, we…ummm…are not very good at biathlon. Like a Chicagoan placing last at a sausage grilling championship, that doesn’t make any damn sense.
Biathlon is the only Winter Olympic event in which the U.S. has won exactly zero medals. Zip, nada, zilch. We have only two athletes in the current top 50 World Cup standings. Our best finish at any Games just happened in Beijing, when Deedra Irwin placed seventh in the 15-kilometer individual event.
But one of the greatest things about the Olympics is how they turn us into fans of individuals, regardless of the flag on their uniform. Take Quentin Fillon Maillet of France. A medal favorite in PyeongChang, Maillet went home empty handed and crushed. In Beijing, he’s medaled in five events with a shot at six in the 15km Mass Start. Or Norway’s Marte Olsbu Roeiseland, who nearly quit the sport as a ninth grader, on account of her asthma. She’s won three golds and a bronze in Beijing, and may have a sixth in the 12.5km Mass Start by the time you read this. That’s right: Biathlon could crown the Winter Olympics’ first six-medal winners—two of them. Holy heart explosions!
If the world’s most well-armed nation’s lousy biathlon record has you down, don’t fret. The only thing we Americans love more than our “We are the best at everything!” mentality is a great underdog story. After all, the Miracle on Ice—or the movie Miracle for that matter—wouldn’t have been such a miracle if the U.S. wasn’t pretty crappy at international hockey for a long time. Will Team USA storm the biathlon podiums at Cortina, 2026, guns blazing? I’d watch that movie.