Biathlon is the number one watched winter sport in Europe, posing a growing threat in television rankings to soccer and hockey when the ski season is on, November through March.
In Russia, the sport’s popularity has been growing since full-length world cup biathlon events started airing on TV in 2003. What’s the secret of biathlon’s popularity in Russia?
1. Biathlon combines cross country skiing with rifle shooting! What the What?
Biathlon is all about multitasking. The sport’s greatest champions combine stealth skiing with steadfast shooting. It’s incredible to watch someone like Martin Fourcade — the winner of two most recent Overall World Cups — ski 5 kilometers at top speed and then shoot the lights out at the shooting range looking very much like a man of steel. Yet with all his accolades, Fourcade has never won an Olympic gold medal and his performance in Sochi will be a defining moment in the 25-year-old biathlete’s career.
2. It’s real-deal shooting.
Each biathlete carries a small bore rifle, weighing at least 7.7 lbs. A biathlon rifle is a .22 caliber rifle, with mechanical sights, five shot magazines, and a form of bolt action. No optical sights are allowed. The target range shooting distance is 50 meters (160 ft). There are five circular targets to be hit in each shooting round.
3. It’s a ferocious race.
“For what Russian does not love a fast ride,” asks Nikolai Gogol in The Dead Souls. Biathlon is a thrill to watch.
Though the sport is not at all popular in the U.S., lots in its history happened on American soil. In 1960, biathlon debuted as an Olympic Sport in Squaw Valley, California. The marquee 10 km (6.2 mi) sprint race was added at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Then the incredible, one-of-a-kind pursuit race (12.5 km for men and 10 km for women) got its start in Salt Lake City in 2002.
4. Ursula Diesl’s ears are über-famous.
A nine-time Olympic medalist and Germany’s 2005 sportswoman of the year, Ursula Diesl’s name is well-known in Europe. Dubbed Turbo-Diesl by the German media, her nickname “Uschi” translates into Russian as Ears, which is simply adorable. Uschi is a legend!
5. It’s so skandalouz!
Two types of scandals dominate biathlon: doping and nationality changes. Many athletes have received multi-year bans from the sport for violating anti-doping policies, and every season there’s new talk and allegations of abuse. The poster child for changing one’s country of allegiance is Anastasia Kuzmina, who shocked the biathlon world and became Slovakia’s first-ever post-independence Winter Olympic champion in 2010, having changed countries because Team Russia coaches wouldn’t give her a chance after she gave birth to a son. Boy, were they wrong!
6. There’s no soccer in winter.
Soccer is the most watched sporting competition in Russia, but the national league hibernates during winter, freeing up countless hours in the schedules of millions of fans, many of whom turn to biathlon and other winter sports. It’s like bowling or fishing for NFL fans who watch ESPN during the off-season.
7. The Bunny of the Entire Rus never disappoints.
Olga Zaitseva is Russia’s biathlon goddess. Not only is she the country’s most decorated biathlete and biggest hope for the Sochi 2014 games, she’s also a popular culture phenomenon because of her nickname, which derives from her last name: The Bunny (Zaika). “The Bunny of the Entire Rus” is a reference to Ivan the Terrible, who became “Tsar and Grand Duke of the Entire Rus” in 1547, ushering a new era of Russian history and worldwide dominance. The Russians are hoping to see Ivan IV-like swagger and confidence in Olga Zaitseva’s shooting in Sochi. Will she deliver?
8. Everyone wants to know how Ole Einar Bjørndalen will finish his career.
The Michael Jordan of biathlon, the most successful biathlete in Winter Olympic History and the only biathlete to win every event during the same Olympics (in Utah), Ole Einer Bjørndalen is still racing. With eleven Olympic medals in the bank (including six golds), if Ole Einer gets to the podium in Sochi he will join fellow Norwegian cross country skier Bjørn Dæhlie as an ultimate Olympic god. Set to retire after Sochi, Bjørndalen’s 39 years old and his last (of six) overall world cup title was in 2008-09, but Norway has won three World Championships relay races in a row with his help. The odds are in his favor.
9. Girl power!
Russia’s female biathletes bring home the gold. In the country’s modern history at the Winter Games (1994-2013), twelve men and thirteen women have won Olympic medals. In this pristine group, only three men became champions while eleven Russian women know the taste of an Olympic victory (and five of them won multiple gold medals!). The Russian women were golden in Turin and Vancouver, and the pressure is on for Sochi! Will they three-peat?
10. It’s not over till it’s over.
During last year’s World Cup team relay race in Oberhof, Germany’s team leader Magdalena Neuner (two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time German sportswoman of the year who won a whopping 27 percent and finished top-ten in 78 percent of the of World Cup tour races she has entered in her career) held a 20-second lead over her counterparts from Russia and Norway. In a historic collapse, Neuner missed 7 of 8 shots at the last shooting range. Russia won the gold medals, Norway was content with the silver, and France slipped by to claim the bronze. Aren’t you looking forward to see what happens at the women’s relay in Sochi?
So where does Team USA fit in all this?
Two-time U.S. Olympian Tim Burke won his second biathlon world championship medal on November 30, finishing third behind defending world champion Martin Fourcade of France and Fredrik Lindstrom of Sweden in the 10 km sprint race in Östersund, Sweden. The U.S. has never won an Olympic medal in biathlon, and Burke’s World Cup podium finish is only the third in Team USA’s history.
You’ve plenty of reasons to follow biathlon this winter!