On compacted snow, I aim my cane like a rifle at rows of metallic targets appearing far away, imagining what it's like for a biathlon athlete. Biathlon? Quick, who won the biathlon event at the 2006 Winter Olympics? It's a trick question;
biathletes are not as well known as hockey, football, basketball and baseball players. Moreover, biathlon is so anonymous in Canada that it could serve the witness protection plan. Whistler Olympic Park will change that.
Cross-country ski trails already are popular for recreational use: 34,000 skiers used the trails during the opening 2007-2008 winter season. Locals are being offered opportunities to combine shoot and ski, rifles fixed in place for safety.
Multiple events exist in biathlon for men and women, and in 2010, they will be held at Whistler Olympic Park in the beautiful Callaghan Valley where the cross-country, biathlon, Nordic combined and ski jumping events will all take place.
The biathlon consists of a sprint, pursuit, individual and relay. During the sprint, women race 7.5 km and men, 10 km, stopping twice to hit five targets with five bullets. Each miss requires a lap around the 150 m penalty loop. The top 60 then qualify for the pursuit wherein competitors start at intervals, based on their finishing time in the sprint competition. Women race 10 km; men, 12.5 km. They stop four times to shoot five targets with a lap penalty around the 150 m loop for each miss.
In the individual event, women race 15 km; men, 20 km and stop four times to shoot five targets. This time, each miss equals a one minute penalty added to their total time.
The relay is a fast-paced team event in which four-person teams engage in four 7.5 km legs for a total of 30 km. There's a mass start by the first skiers of each team. Every team member shoots twice and is allowed three extra bullets (a total of eight) to hit five targets, yet they must load the three extra bullets one by one. For each target missed, they ski a lap around the 150 m penalty loop.
The sport is demanding. It's not easy to calmly site a target and pull the trigger with precision while your heart pumps wildly from skiing. Think of a basketball player shooting a free throw after racing up and down the court a few times.
At the shooting range, the metal target sits 50 metres away. Each target has five plates, fixed in a straight row. The shooter must hit the middle or bull's eye. The bull's eye size changes depending on whether the athlete is firing in a prone or standing position. Prone, it's the size of a golf ball (45 mm); standing, a large grapefruit (115 mm). Fun, eh?
The word biathlon stems from the Greek word for two contests. It takes 20-25 seconds to aim and shoot five bullets. Biathlon has evolved from a survival tactic rather than a sport. Northern Europeans skied to hunt for food, and later, they carried weapons to defend their country.
In the Torino, Italy 2006 Winter Olympics, men and women from 28 nations qualified to participate, but only seven nations captured medals, Germany winning the most (5 gold, 4 silver, 2 bronze). Six biathletes won 3 medals each; however, German, Michael Greis, won the most gold medals at three.
Alas, the biathlon is not without controversy. The IOC disqualified Russian athlete, Olga Pyleva, the thirty-year old testing positive for carphedon, a prohibited substance, after winning the silver medal in the women's 15 km individual event. In 2010, the doping centre will be located inside Richmond's Oval, site of distance skating events.
How badly do athletes want to win? Another trick question. VANOC will deliver a state-of-the-art doping control program to ensure all athletes compete on a level playing field. Approximately 2,450 blood and urine samples will be collected during the 2010 Winter Games, a significant increase in the number of samples from previous Games. If you require a fun-filled job at the Olympics, VANOC will be training phlebotomists (those who draw blood) as blood collection officers for the Games. If you relish something less vampire-like, chaperones are also being recruited. Test your social skills. You can hang out with your favourite athlete until he or she feels a certain urge. Chaperones should be gregarious types, capable of discussing multiple topics.
Biathlon fast facts:
First men's event: Squaw Valley, USA, 1960 Olympics
First women's event: Albertville, France 1992 Olympics
One of the most popular European winter events, drawing a huge TV audience.
Uses .22 calibre rifles and real bullets.
The range at Whistler Olympic Park sports a fully electronic computerized sensor system to detect hits or misses.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
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