The Armed Circus-Pony Competition

Gero Breloer, AP

Every four years I am drawn, like a moth to a dull flame, to biathlon. I’m not sure why. I suppose, in part, it’s the raw, hunter-gatherer image of it. You ski and shoot. You are trekking across the tundra. It’s probably Siberia or Alaska. Or both! You have to hunt down a bear and kill it, and then you have to live inside that bear for three weeks, slowly eating your way out. Biathlon is a fundamental sport.

But it’s not my fundament. I’ve never been on cross-country skis, and I’ve never eaten a bear. I’ve never even picked up a gun, not a real one. My fundamental sport would probably be something like reading a difficult text on a crowded subway. (riverrun, past Adam and Eve’s… but look at her shoes… ow, watch out, dude… from swerve of shore…) Still, I’m intrigued by the idea of pushing the body to its physical limits (if not the reality of doing it) and getting really hot in a really cold climate and then trying to get real cold, like cold-blooded cold, and popping off some targets with a high-tech rifle and then pushing on. I like how the biathletes collapse at the end, nearly dead on the stark, white canvas. I like how they are always equipped, even lying there dead, with colorful packs on their backs, guns jutting out. It’s beautiful.

Histories of biathlon like to point to its ancient roots. Four-thousand-year-old Norwegian rock carvings, they say, show humans stalking their prey on skis. (With rifles?) Perhaps biathlon, like most fundamental sports, borrows more from the age of imperialism than from some ur-human endeavor. It’s a war game. The earliest recoded competition in 1767 on the Norwegian-Sweden border was an outgrowth of continued tension (i.e., centuries of war) between Sweden and Norway (and Denmark and Russia). The Great Northern War in which Peter the Great tried to beat Sweden at its expansionist game, was a recent memory. Norwegians had learned to ski and shoot Swedes at the same time. A hundred years later similar conflicts (now Napoleon was the recent memory) brought about the first recreational ski clubs, which doubled as rural militias. Biathlon training became standard in the Scandinavian armed forces. Back then it was called “military patrol,” which entered the Olympics in 1924. It featured a few more times as a demonstration sport. Only in 1960 did it return to the Games, re-christened with a more athletic title “Biathlon.”

So much for the bear hunting, I guess. But killing people is just as fundamental (even in the happiest of countries, like Norway), and it gives one of the official Biathlon races, Pursuit, an eerie Hunger Games feel to it. Plus, it makes it seem less boring. I’ve heard this from philistines: Biathlon is boring. I guess I can see how the structure of the races, which (except for Pursuit and Mass Start) are stagger-started and timed, deflate the drama. There is no sprint to the finish line, and you don’t know who won until everyone’s done. But still these skiers go and go and then we watch the tiny golf-ball sized targets, pop, pop, pop, pop, miss! The whole while the NBC announcer Chad Salmela is absolutely freaking out (“THERE IS NOTHING LEFT IN ANYBODY, NOTHING LEFT! COLOGNA IS DEAD BUT HE’S IN FRONT!”), and every moment seems monumental, Olympic even. When they miss (in most events) biathletes have to take a penalty lap around a small ring so they look like circus ponies a little, trotting around a constricted track, giants trying not to be circus ponies, ashamed, circus ponies with guns.

This is what I thought of anyway when the old master Ole Einar Bjørndalen, perhaps the greatest biathlete in history, missed a shot in the first shooting station of the 10K Sprint, the first biathlon event in this year’s Olympics. He had been closing in on the best time, surprising the field with his 40-year-old lungs. Now waddling around the penalty lap he was dropping time. He fell to 5th with only 2.3 kilometers left. No way to make it back, I thought. Biathlon is no country for old men.

But that’s the kind of thinking that’s keeping me from earning a bronze statue of myself in my hometown. Ole’s got one. Across those last two kilometers he killed it. He killed the bear. He killed the Swede.

Great article, Austin. Some of the competitors should read this.

Tom Farrelly    Feb 12, 10:23 AM    #

Thanks, Tom.

— Austin    Feb 13, 01:16 PM    #

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