Watching Olympic TV coverage these days, you can often overhear the commentators’ astonishment about the popularity of one particular Olympic sport: biathlon. While North America sends biathletes to world-class events, the sport itself is unknown to most Canadians and Americans.
In Europe and Russia, every kid can explain the sport, which combines cross-country skiing with rifle shooting. The most successful biathlete of all time, Germany’s Magdalena Neuner, enjoys more popularity than most of her country’s best soccer players. Her second gold medal win in the Olympic mass start in 2010 was seen live by 9.75 million German television viewers, which equals a 31.5 per cent market share. It is not uncommon that European World Cup events have 25,000 spectators, and even special indoor biathlon events are staged in arenas in front of an audience of 50,000.
Why is the sport so fascinating? Because it mixes intense physical exertion with fine-tuned, focused purpose; it asks for two distinctly different skill sets, endurance and precision. After skiing demanding terrain with their 3.5 kg-rifles on their backs, athletes enter the shooting range with heart rates of up to 200 beats per minute. Within seconds, the athletes need to lower heart rate and stress level and control their breathing to shoot five .22-calibre bullets at tiny targets 50 metres away (4.5-centimetre targets for the prone/lying down and 11.5 centimetres for the standing position). Missed shots result either in a penalty lap to ski (150 metres/about 20-25 seconds) or a one-minute time penalty, depending on the type of race. Individual races at the World Cup and Olympic level have multiple shooting sessions in between the skiing loops and range from 7.5 to 20 kilometres in distance. Competitions are thrilling from the first to the last second and victory and defeat can be decided by millimetres and seconds. By missing only one target in the last visit to the shooting range, the leader can lose the race and runners-up will triumph. Only those who manage to combine frantic physical exertion with focused aiming win.
You can try it! Many clubs in the Sea to Sky Corridor, such as the Callaghan Winter Sports Club or the West Coast Nordics, offer biathlon programs for kids, youth and adults. You can also try biathlon without enrolling in a club by booking a lesson at Whistler Olympic Park, or enter one of the public races that are regularly organized at the park’s Olympic biathlon range — everyone can participate, no further skiing or shooting experience required (www.whistlerolympicpark.com).
• Kids Ski Jumping and Nordic Spring Break Camps in March — March will be an exciting month for children interested in Nordic sports: Whistler Olympic Park will offer ski jumping camps and a five-day Nordic camp during spring break.
The ski jumping camps will be one-day sessions on the first two weekends of March. Girls and boys will get introduced to the exciting sport, starting safely on small, manmade jumps. In one day (9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.), they will learn the basics of ski jumping through Nordic cross/ski play, dryland practice of takeoff/flying/landing positions and actual jumps on snow. The program costs $30 per child (that includes trail fee, instruction, boots, helmet and ski rentals), and the minimum age for participation is eight. With women’s ski jumping being part of the Olympics for the first time this year, a very special surprise is in store for all girls that take part in the camps: They will get an exclusive invite to the Ski Jumping National Championships at Whistler Olympic Park at the end of March with a chance to meet Canada’s Olympic athletes Atsuko Tanaka and Taylor Henrich.
Another Nordic event for children will take place from March 17 to 21. A five-day multi-sport camp during spring break will introduce kids to all facets of Nordic winter fun, including cross-country skiing, biathlon, snowshoeing, ski jump activities, ski play and tobogganing. The program will run daily from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and is offered for children aged eight to 13.
More information on how to sign up and pricing for the different programs is available under www.whistlerolympicpark.com.
Silke Jeltsch is an administrator at Whistler Olympic Park. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org