Biathlon - A Challenging Mixed Discipline Sport
The Biathlon World Championships take place this month in Sweden. But what does this massively challenging event entail – and how is this country fairing at the mixed discipline sport?
For those of you unfamiliar with the biathlon (that included me before I set out to write this), here’s a quick introduction: it’s a winter sport comprising 12 cross-country skiing and rifle shooting competitions.
The history is rooted in the skiing traditions of Scandinavia where early inhabitants revered the Norse god Ullr as both the ski and hunting deity. Fast-forward and the activity developed into the sport we know today via a route that saw it provide an alternative to military training in Norway.
The first Biathlon World Championship was held in 1958. Two years later, the sport made its Olympic Games debut and, in 1992, women were admitted to the Olympic biathlon.
Kent-based Sarah Greig was responsible for preparing the Great Britain team for the Winter Olympics in South Korea last year. Liaising between the British Biathlon Union (BBU) and Team GB, Sarah – who started Nordic skiing at university and continued while in the army – describes the experience in PyeongChang as “amazing; full of healthy competition, team spirit and camaraderie”.
After running a ladies’ team and taking over as secretary of Army Nordic skiing, Sarah was approached by the BBU to team lead the GB team in South Korea. On the surface, biathlon appears a minority sport, so one of the things she finds most encouraging is the way it’s being targeted at young people.
“Several Kent schools, including Ashford School where my children attend, are involved in modern biathlon (in the UK it’s swimming and running) and also practice the modern pentathlon event of shooting,” says Sarah.
“I’ll certainly be getting my children (aged seven and nine) involved in skiing biathlon as, when combined with the finer skills of precision shooting, it’s a brilliant way of keeping fit. One word of warning though – once you start, you’ll be hooked!”
Roddy Christie is Secretary General of the British Biathlon Union (BBU). We caught up with him on the eve of the World Championships.
For those unfamiliar with the biathlon,give us a quick overview?
“Biathlon is an Olympic winter sport combining competitive, free-technique cross-country skiing and small-bore rifle marksmanship. Winter sports have traditionally been of a minority interest in the UK but are increasingly popular and we’re developing some world-class athletes. We currently have at least five.”
How have you seen our interest in winter sports change over the 23 years the BBU has been in existence?
“Even though we’re young in comparison with traditional British sports we’ve had athletes at every Olympics since biathlon was introduced in 1960. Over that time winter sports have had some blips in popularity, but this has mostly been in figure skating, skeleton and curling. Snow sports haven’t quite made the same headlines, but we have real potential in cross-country.”
Here in Britain we tend to think of winter sports as being challenging when it comes to opportunities to train and cost.
Is there now more scope to get involved?
“For ice sports, bar skeleton and bob, we have in theory the same facilities but maybe not the same depth of coaching. Over the past decades the introduction of more snow domes has helped alpine sports develop young athletes and, in biathlon and cross-country, roller-skis have enabled athletes to train anywhere in the UK. In biathlon specifically, laser rifles offer a huge opportunity to get young athletes involved.”
Where does Great Britain stand in success and rankings?
“At the last Olympics we took home a record five medals but had the potential to take more – and we are moving up the rankings. We’re also making moves in the more traditional sports like cross-country and alpine skiing. We’ve had top 10 places in the past but we’re going through a rebuilding phase and focusing on developing younger age competitions.”
You train and select athletes to represent GB on the world’s most important sporting stages as well as in youth competitions. Tell us a little more?
“In the past we’ve enjoyed relative success at the highest level but sport, in general, has become professional over the last 20 years and we’ve struggled to engage school age athletes. Cross-country has proved it’s possible to match international peer development to around the age of 18 but athletes then need to move to a snow nation. We’re now creating a pathway to attract young athletes.”
Most biathletes are serving members of the armed forces. What do you do in terms of education and development to broaden participation?
“We’re trying to diversify and widen participation by looking at schools and not just the military. An example of this is three 14-to-16-year-olds who’ll be attending the Future Stars Seminar in Ostersund during the World Championships this month. The sport is rooted in the military in Britain and they’ve provided and will continue to turn out GB standard athletes, but we need to widen participation.”
What advice would you give a young person with a real aptitude at, and skill for, winter sports who is thinking about trying to compete?
“Don’t feel it’s impossible. Get a pair of roller-skis, contact your nearest club (London and the South East are well served) and get involved. Once you’ve got the hang of it and are hooked then start to think about adding shooting but, first and foremost, you must be able to ski. We have plans to develop the running biathlon scene (using laser rifles) that would also enable participation in biathlon from an earlier stage.”