Who to watch
Ole-Einar Bjørndalen, NOR (see video)
Dubbed the King of Biathlon, Bjørndalen has already been immortalized with a bronze statue in his hometown of Simostrande, Norway. But despite achieving more accolades than any other biathlete – he has won 91 World Cups, 13 World Championships golds, and nine Olympic medals – the 36-year-old is nowhere near quitting. Before the Vancouver Games even started, he declared that he planned to compete in the 2014 Games, which will take place two decades after his Olympic debut in Lillehammer.
That positions him well to overtake his countryman Bjørn Daehlie as the Winter Olympian with the most medals. Even if he doesn't manage that, his record of consistency is outstanding: For 12 consecutive years, he has finished every season ranked top 3 in the world. That consistency is no doubt a product of his work ethic: He has not taken more than three consecutive days off from training in the past 15 years (with one, three-week exception due to illness).
Bjørndalen has also excelled at other sports, setting a PR of 1:09 in the half-marathon (running), winning the beach volleyball tournament in Laguna Beach in 2001, and becoming the first biathlete to win a cross-country skiing World Cup in 2006. He also takes an active role in designing his equipment, spending three years to develop a new racing suit that prevents one's rifle from slipping around during the race. He lives in Austria with his wife, Italian biathlete Nathalie Santer.
Helena Jonsson, SWE (see video)
Ranked No. 1 in the world going into Vancouver, Jonsson is the reigning world champion and one of Sweden’s top medal hopes. An excellent marksman, she has been skiing since she was 2 years old and received her first rifle as a gift from her father for her 10th birthday. Her years of practice have paid off: Jonsson is a two-time world champion and won the overall World Cup last season. And at the beginning of 2010, she was named the winner of the prestigious Swedish Jerring Sports prize.
Americans to watch: The US men's team of Lowell Bailey, Tim Burke (see how Tim trains), Jay Hakkinen, Jeremy Teela and rookie Wynn Roberts is the most experienced ever to compete at the Olympics. Burke has led the overall World Cup standings for much of the 2009-10 season, adding momentum to a very promising bid for America's first medal in the sport.
Click her for schedule and results.
Biathlon has been compared with running up two flights of stairs and then trying to thread a needle, combining one of the most physiologically demanding sports with one that requires exceptional calm and accuracy. In all five Olympic events, the objective is the same: to complete the course in the least amount of time and to hit as many targets as possible to avoid time penalties. Athletes compete under the pressure of the clock that continues to run even as they stop to shoot.
There are two types of shooting – prone (P) and standing (S) – both performed at a distance of 50 meters. In prone, biathletes lie on their stomach and try to hit five targets the size of golf balls; in prone, they stand and take aim at five targets the size of grapefruit. In the Individual event, a one-minute penalty is applied to the biathlete's time for each target missed, while in the other events he or she must ski a 150-meter penalty loop for each miss.
- Individual Start: Competitors start one at a time, every 30 seconds, and ski a designated loop five times with four stops (P-S-P-S) at the shooting range. Men ski 20 km and women 15 km.
- Sprint: Similar to the individual start, but around three shorter loops. Men ski 10 km and women 7.5 km, with only two shooting stages (P-S).
- Pursuit: Open to the top 60 finishers in the sprint, the 12.5 km/10 km pursuit is kicked off by the winner of the sprint leaving the starting gate. The rest of the biathletes are staggered behind him/her based on how many seconds behind the winner they were in the sprint. The first biathlete to cross the finish wins.
- Relay: Four-member teams ski 30 km/24 km, with two shooting phases (P-S) per leg. Biathletes have three extra rounds of bullets to make the five targets, but beyond that must ski penalty loops.
- Mass Start: Biathletes compete head to head over a 15 km/12.5 km course, with four shooting stages (P-P-S-S)
Cross-country skiing and rifle shooting: the two sports couldn’t seem less related. Biathlon – a throwback to winter hunting and, later, the 16th-century Scandinavian military -- marries the intensity of cross-country skiing with the steady focus and precision of marksmanship. The word comes from the Greek "bi" and "athlon," meaning two contests.
The first world championships were held in Austria in 1958 and became an Olympic sport (for men) two years later. After 1948, the sport was dropped from the Olympic program in response to antimilitary sentiment following World War II. The event was reinstated in 1968 and joined by the women’s biathlon in 1992.
Sources: International Biathlon Union, oleeinarbjoerndalen.com, vancouver2010.com, nbcolympics.com