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Skiing plus shooting equals the Winter Olympics' biathlon

This difficult sport is steeped in Scandinavian traditions, and a medal has remained elusive for the U.S.

BEIJING, China — The Winter Olympics are home to a bevy of unique events -- from curling and bobsled, to freestyle snowboarding and luge. Among those is one that combines two seemingly unrelated activities: cross-country skiing and sport shooting.

This event is the biathlon, and it's a sport steeped in the winter games' history and tradition. It's also the only Winter Olympic event that NPR reports the United States has never earned a medal in.

Encyclopedia Britannica dives deep when discussing the roots of the game. The biathlon's culture lies in early Scandinavia's hunter-skier tradition when early inhabitants revered the Norse god Ull and his wife Skadi. Ull was deemed the god of both skiing and hunting while Skadi was celebrated as a hunter-skier. 

Those early traditions eventually influenced the region's military forces. As Encyclopedia Britannica explains, Norwegian and Swedish ski units armed with rifles were deployed in the Second Northern War from 1700-1721. In the years following, border patrol companies from both countries were first recorded holding a biathlon competition in 1767. The first biathlon club was established in Norway in 1861, and it eventually proliferated throughout Europe.

WINTER OLYMPICS: Now is your chance to meet an Olympic gold medalist at the Charlotte Curling Association

Almost 60 years later, Encyclopedia Britannica says the biathlon was part of the first-ever Winter Olympics, which was held in France in 1924. At the time, it was called the military patrol and was a demonstration at the time. It remained a demonstration sport for the Winter Games in 1928, 1936, and 1948. Eventually, the men's biathlon was officially added to the Winter Games in 1960, with women's biathlon added 32 years later in 1992.

The general idea behind the modern biathlon, as regulated by the International Biathlon Union (IBU) is simple: athletes ski and stop to shoot at different intervals based on the race they're in. Depending on the event, missing a target means the athletes have to either ski inside a penalty loop, ski another lap or have one minute of time added to their finishing time. In the end, the athlete or team with the fastest time wins.

RULES OF THE GAME: Breaking down the biathlon's rules

Modern biathletes are required by the IBU to use specially-designed rifles that shoot .22-caliber rounds and weigh just under 8 pounds. They carry the rifles with them as they ski. Either classical or freestyle skating ski techniques are allowed, but athletes must shoot from both standing and prone positions for most races.

The target size also varies depending on the shooting position. Athletes who are shooting while standing will take aim at 4.5-inch target, but prone shots have to hit a smaller 1.8-inch target.

The target size, the effort put into skiing, and the focus required for both components makes the biathlon a unique challenge for athletes. Missing a target means adding on the appropriate penalty, which can make or break a run.

The United States has eight biathletes competing in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. They do face steep competition from their counterparts in Europe; The Sporting News reports Germany dominates the running medal count at 52, followed by Norway and France.

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