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February 15, 1960
The Russian team is the best in this unique shooting-cum-skiing contest
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February 15, 1960

The Ski Events: Biathlon

The Russian team is the best in this unique shooting-cum-skiing contest

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Biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, is the newest and oldest of the ski events. As part of the first ski meet recorded anywhere—at Oslo, Norway in 1767—there was a race in which the competitors both skied and shot. Yet the first biathlon world championship was not held until 1958. And only this year was it included in the Olympics at the strenuous request of the Russians and the Scandinavians, who value the sport for its military as well as sporting virtues.

The current world biathlon champion is, unsurprisingly, a Russian, Vladimir Melanin. His countrymen confidently predict a gold medal for him or teammate Alexander Privalov. The Swedes are expected to place their best man, Sven Agge, in one of the first three places.

The American record in major biathlon meets is dismal—last in 1958 world championships and third from last in 1959. Some small consolation was provided at the North American championships at Squaw Valley last year, when Larry Damon of Burlington, Vt., surprised everyone by winning the event over Sweden's favored Klas Lestander; but at the Olympics, Damon is considered unlikely to finish in the first 10. The man who wins the gold medal will probably endure as the Olympics' only biathlon champion: the event has just been voted out of the next Winter Games in 1964.

Biathlon course at McKinney Creek, about 12 miles from Squaw Valley, runs over same terrain as the cross-country courses. Biathlon track (see map above) is 20 kilometers (12½ miles) long, has four firing ranges. Contestants must stop at each range, take five shots at a small (8 to 12 inches in diameter), dark target 110 to 270 yards away. Every miss adds two minutes penalty to competitor's normal 1½-hour elapsed time around the course. After he has finished firing at each station, the biathlon contestant may not continue race until he checks rifle with official to certify that chamber is empty. Along the course, skier carries rifle across back in a tight-fitting sling so it will not interfere with his running; but in difficult terrain (see diagram below for cross-section of course's ups and downs), even a good cross-country runner may slip and fall to ground, clogging muzzle or breech of his rifle with snow which must be removed before next firing. As fatigue sets in, accurate firing becomes harder, and pressure to hit target mounts. "It's not much like rifle marksmanship," said one competitor recently. "Your heart is pounding, you're shaking, and the target—it's mighty small."