This article is part of the Ellison Center blog Series on Sochi. Click here to read more as we cover the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Russia!
By William D. Frank
Thirty-three medals awarded across 11 biathlon events are up for grabs in Sochi — Norway, Austria and the Czech Republic snagged the first three Feb. 8. This odd combination of cross-country skiing and shooting now accounts for more than 11 percent of all Olympic medals, indicative of the sport’s growth from obscure beginnings to its current status as the most popular winter spectator sport in Europe. Along with the eight individual events for men and women, there will be three team relays: most innovative will be a mixed gender relay, the first time such a competition has ever been part of the Winter Games. Women’s biathlon was a long time coming, but today, women’s events are often more popular than the men’s: for two years running (2007-10), a vote among Europe’s top sport journalists elected Magdalena Neuner of Germany the most popular international biathlon star. Neuner is especially well liked in Russia, where she has her own fan club responsible for a significant proportion of the fan mail she receives. This adulation is all the more remarkable when considering — through the prism of biathlon’s martial overtones — the fractious relationship between Germany and Russia during the 20th century.
An event like biathlon has been part of the Winter Olympics from the very beginning. Military patrol, a team competition restricted to male military personnel was a demonstration sport from 1924 through 1948; it was dropped after World War II because of anti-military sentiment. The USSR and Scandinavian countries lobbied in the mid-1950s for a new ski-shooting contest, which led to the introduction of biathlon as we know it today at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics. Soviet athletes immediately dominated international competition. From 1958 to 1977, the top five most successful biathletes came from the USSR; and out of the top 25, half were Soviet. Most impressive is that in six consecutive Olympics — from 1968 through 1988 — the Soviet Union never relinquished the gold medal in the biathlon relay.
But biathlon was distinctly male-oriented throughout the Soviet era: although the eastern bloc countries held international women’s ski-shooting events starting in the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1984 that biathlon’s governing body sanctioned the first world championships for women. And women’s biathlon only became an Olympic event in 1992, a scant six weeks after the dissolution of the USSR. In the early days, female athletes faced significant discrimination at international competitions in Europe. Kari Swenson, an American medalist who had several top finishes from 1984 through 1986, recently told an interviewer that during her trip to the first women’s biathlon championships in Chamonix, older European fans would tell the competitors: “women shouldn’t be skiing and carrying a rifle, [it’s] just too hard on women. … and [it’s] not ladylike to shoot rifles.” Perhaps this was the prevalent attitude in France, but certainly not in the Soviet Union.
Sport, and especially skiing, was part of the USSR’s national defense program for men and women almost from the country’s inception in 1917. Along with the first five-year plan for industrial development in the 1930s, Stalin introduced the Ready for Labor and Defense Program, a physical fitness protocol for workers and students. Two of the mandatory disciplines were cross-country skiing and rifle-shooting. Thus, every citizen in the USSR was exposed to the fundamentals of biathlon for three decades prior to the sport’s introduction in 1960. Skiing gained greater prominence during World War II, when the USSR transformed lessons learned at the hands of Finnish ski troops during the Winter War of 1939-40 into a potent means of thwarting the German invasion of 1942. But the war was costly: Between 1940 and 1945, 27 million Soviet soldiers and citizens lost their lives, amounting to around 15 percent of the population.
In the immediate post-war years, the government sought to keep the emotional war memories alive by staging sport festivals and naming them after distinguished athletes who died in combat. As a result of the success of the Red Army’s ski divisions, ski racing was particularly evocative of the war and the government adopted skiing as a fundamental characteristic associated with the stoic endurance of the battle-hardened Soviet population. After the government allowed athletes to compete at the 1956 Olympics, the USSR’s female cross-country skiers overpowered their competition for more than three decades at all international competitions [see picture 4]. Soviet women continued training in ski-shooting events throughout the Cold War era: Between 1984 and 1991 they dominated international biathlon, winning half of all medals awarded and never losing a world championship relay event. The government celebrated the extraordinary success of the men’s and women’s international biathlon squads as a demonstration to the nation that the joint program of physical fitness training and border defense continued to pay dividends after the war.
The downfall of communism marked the beginning of a new era in biathlon. A number of strong programs emerged from the breakup of the USSR, while reunified Germany merged two powerful teams. Olympic competition opened to women in 1992, and innovative events augmented by new technology turned biathlon into an exciting TV sport. The result has been an increase in the popularity of biathlon and in the intensity of competition. Although more athletes than ever are entered in today’s international races, Russia remains one of the top biathlon nations. Currently, Russia is neck and neck with Germany and Norway in team world cup standings for men with Austria and France close behind: Germany, Ukraine, Norway and Russia top the women’s division. So if you tire of the glitz and glamour of ice dancing and figure skating while watching the Sochi coverage in February, tune in for biathlon’s three team relay events where national fervor will be at its most intense: and savor the satisfaction of watching women compete on an equal footing with men in the most dynamic of winter events, chock full of significance for every Russian and East European aficionado.
William D. Frank is the author of Everyone to Skis! Skiing in Russia and the Rise of Soviet Biathlon (Northern Illinois University Press, 2013). He received his PhD in history from the University of Washington and was a candidate for the 1980 United States Olympic Team in biathlon. His most recent article on the sport, “Why Russians love biathlon,” appeared this week in The Boston Globe.