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A Rookie's Guide to Biathlon at the 2018 Winter Olympics

Don't know anything about biathlon? No problem. Here are all the basics you need to know before the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea are right around the corner! That means it's time to watch sports you might not have seen in four years. To help you feel at least a little more informed—either to impress your friends or fake your way through a conversation with an actual expert—SI will be providing rookie's guides to each of the 15 sports. These will be published daily, Monday through Friday, from December 4-22.

​No Olympic sport fits better within the seminal action scene of a James Bond movie than biathlon, which blends two brutally simple disciplines into a thrilling race format that makes for one of the most unique spectator experiences of the Winter Games.

The one drawback? It’s unlike any race the common American sports fan may be familiar with, so the rules take some getting used to. With a few minutes of prep work, you too can live and die with the drama in all 12 biathlon events on the Olympic schedule.

How does biathlon work?

Biathlon is the combination of two sports, cross-country skiing and shooting, into one race. Athletes are rewarded for their power and endurance as racers and their composure and accuracy as marksmen. In PyeongChang, a total of 230 athletes will qualify, with a quota of spots awarded to competing nations based on the men’s and women’s IBU World Cup Nations Cup final standings at the end of the 2016-17 season. The U.S. will be sending five men and five women; the highest-ranking nations receive six spots each.

Winter Olympics 2018: Biathlon Schedule

In all formats, athletes race around a closed course, stopping at set intervals to hit five targets 50 meters away. For every target missed, the athlete takes on either a distance penalty (one lap around a 150 meter loop, branched off from the larger race course) or a time penalty (one minute added onto his or her total time), depending on the format.

Why is it worth my time?

The drama of biathlon as a spectator sport is centered around the shooting range, where the anxiety-inducing knowledge that each missed shot physically lengthens the course for the competitor keeps the crowd on edge.

And while cross-country skiing and shooting on their own are difficult enough to master individually, they are uniquely difficult to combine. Go to your local golf course and try to sprint from the tee to the green on the longest hole and then get enough control of your breathing and your body to drain five consecutive eight-foot putts. (Note: Maybe double-check your membership agreement before trying this experiment out.) The best biathletes have a preternatural feel for their own heart rate and stamina, going from maximum cardiovascular exertion to complete internal stillness in a matter of seconds, as they coast into position for the shooting portion of the race.

And if you are by chance going to PyeongChang, it’s definitely worth dropping by the Alpensia Biathlon Center to take a race in firsthand. The cheers from the stadium seating at every on-target shot from one of the home country’s biathletes are pretty cool:

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What are the different formats?

There are five race formats at the Olympics that hand out a total of 11 gold medals: five each for men’s and women’s events, and one mixed events. A quick primer on each format:

The Individual (20km for men, 15 for women) format works like a staggered time trial, where competitors (89 men and 85 women in Sochi) start in 30-second intervals and compete for the best finish time. They go through four rounds of shooting in which they must hit five targets with five bullets, alternating between a prone position and a standing one each round.

The Sprint (10km for men, 7.5 for women) features an identical format but exactly half the distance and shooting obligations as the individual format.

In the Pursuit format (12.5km for men, 10 km for women), biathletes begin the race separated by their order and time intervals of finish in the sprint, and the first racer to cross the finish line wins. The stakes are particularly high because only the top finishers qualify for the Mass Start.

In the Mass Start (15km for men, 12.5km for women), all contestants start the event at the same time. For congestion reasons, only the 30 fastest racers from the sprint get to participate in the Mass Start.

There are also Men’s, Women’s and MixedRelay events, in which four biathletes—women first, then the men—complete the same course.

What kind of guns are those?

Those are .22 caliber small-bore rifles, painted in country colors, and the biathletes have to ski the entire race with them strapped to their backs. This makes for some of the gentler celebratory embraces at the finish line you’ll see in PyeongChang.

Who are the favorites?

When 44-year-old Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, the most decorated Winter Olympian ever with 13 total medals and eight golds, was left off Norway’s biathlon team amid a run of poor finishes, it left the door open for other names to emerge as the face of biathlon. It’s highly likely many of those names will also be Norwegian. Johannes Thingnes Bø and his older brother Tarjei Bø should both be podium factors—they sit comfortably in the top 10 of the World Cup standings and are the centerpieces of the national team that dominates the sport. But the sport’s standalone star male athlete is now Frenchman Martin Fourcade, who grew up watching Bjoerndalen and is now out to equal him, needing just two Games to earn more medals than any other French Winter Olympian. Germany and Russia also have fielded strong teams in recent Olympic cycles.

Is the U.S. any good?

Not yet! No American biathlete has ever medaled at the Olympics, and Team USA came away from the 2014 Games in Sochi without a single individual top-10 finish. This cycle’s best hope is 31-year-old Susan Dunklee, who earned a silver medal in the mass start at the 2017 world championships, becoming the first American woman ever to medal at that level. Lowell Bailey, the first athlete to qualify for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team in any sport, also took gold in the 20-kilometer individual race at this year’s worlds. But in terms of the sport’s developmental infrastructure, the U.S. lags far behind northern European nations like Norway and Russia that are perennial contenders. Team USA’s inclination to find good skiers who can be taught to shoot over a period of several years is a slow-burning process that to date hasn’t done enough to make up the gap between them and the elite nations, whose children grow up on skis.