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How Biathlon Works

Biathlon at the 2006 Winter Olympics

The 2006 Torino Winter Olympic biathlon includes five main event types: individual, sprint, pursuit and relay, with mass start making its debut. These events are divided into different distances and split between men's and women's competitions for a total of 10 different events:

  • Men's 20 km Individual
  • Women's 15 km Individual
  • Men's 10 km Sprint
  • Women's 7.5 km Sprint
  • Women's 10 km Pursuit
  • Men's 12.5 km Pursuit
  • Men's 4 x 7.5 km Relay
  • Women's 4 x 6 km Relay
  • Men's 15 km Mass Start
  • Women's 12.5 km Mass Start

Let's look at each type of event in more detail.


This is the original biathlon event. Competitors each start 30 seconds apart, skiing five laps around a 3 or 4 km loop. At the end of each lap (except the final lap), competitors shoot. The four shooting portions in order are prone, standing, prone, standing. Each missed shot adds a one-minute penalty. Standings are determined by overall time, which runs continuously from the moment a competitor leaves the starting line to when he or she crosses the finish line. The winners of this event will finish in under an hour.


Sprint is similar to the individual, but the distance is shorter (about 10 km total), and there are only two shooting portions: prone, then standing. Each missed target results in one lap around the 150 m penalty loop.


Each relay team has four members. All the first-leg skiers line up at the starting line and begin at the same time. They tend to arrive at the first firing range in the same manner. Each team member skis about 3 or 4 km, shoots prone, then skis the rest of his or her 7.5 km leg and shoots standing. Competitors must tag the next team member to start the next leg of the relay. This event is head-to-head. The athletes are not racing against the clock, but directly against each other. Whoever crosses the finish line first wins.


The Pursuit is unusual among Olympic events in that a previous event's results determine its competitors. The top 60 competitors from the Sprint qualify for the Pursuit. They start the 12.5 km (10 km for women) event at intervals based on their Sprint finishing times, but the race is actually head-to-head. This means that whoever does well in the Sprint and starts the Pursuit first has an actual head start over the rest of the field, who are constantly in "pursuit." The Pursuit has four shooting portions: prone, prone, standing, standing.

Mass Start

This newest biathlon event is meant to appeal to spectators. Like Pursuit, entry is determined by prior events. Medal winners in the individual events qualify for Mass Start, with world IBU rankings determining the remaining field of 30. The men ski for 15 m and the women ski for a total of 12.5 km. The four shooting portions are prone, prone, standing, standing. This is a head-to-head competition, with all the competitors leaving the starting line at the same time.

Next, we'll check out the equipment that biathletes use for both skiing and shooting.