Combining cross country skiing with shooting, biathlon demands that its stars blend great power and endurance with a calm mind and steady hands. Veteran Finnish racer Kaisa Makarainen, a two-time World Cup winner, aims to emerge from a hugely competitive pack in Korea to claim a first Olympic medal in PyeongChang.
For Kaisa Makarainen, the key to success in biathlon is not to separate its two elements in her mind. However, she admits her upbringing gave her a forceful advantage in one.
“I have skied since I can remember, since I learned to walk,” said the 35-year-old, who grew up skiing to school in a tiny village in northern Finland, where temperatures would often drop below -30 degrees. “We didn’t really have any other hobbies. I started shooting when I was 20, so of course my skiing is stronger.
“They are very different disciplines, but I try to see biathlon as one sport. They go hand in hand – if you have a good day in skiing, it can help your shooting.”
Biathlon has its roots in hunting and survival skills developed in the forests of Scandinavia, where versions of the sport have been contested since the 18th century.
At PyeongChang 2018 there will be 11 events: men’s and women’s sprint, pursuit, individual, mass start and relay races, plus a mixed relay. Each event has its own day, except for the men’s and women’s pursuits, which are held on the same day.
In the sprint and individual races, the athletes start at intervals and compete against the clock. In the pursuits, mass starts and relays, the first racer to cross the finish line takes gold.
You must be physically very strong because you need your whole body to work really well in cross country skiing – your arms and legs, your core strength. And for shooting you must have a strong head. It requires a lot of mental skill.Kaisa Makarainen
“These races, where everybody is racing together so you can understand easily who is the leader, are really easy to watch,” says Makarainen. “If you watched one of these for the first time, you’d want to watch again.”
Each athlete skis with their rifle strapped to their back and stops to shoot at five targets at designated points (two or four times per race), from a standing position or lying down on their front, known as prone. In the individual events, athletes have one minute added to their time for each missed target, while in every other event they must ski a 150m penalty loop for each miss.
“Even though you can have favourites, you never know what the result will be,” says Makarainen. “You never know how the athletes will cope with the shooting, and then some of the best shooters are not so good on the skis, so it’s really dramatic.”
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“You must be physically very strong because you need your whole body to work really well in cross country skiing – your arms and legs, your core strength,” says Makarainen. “And for shooting you must have a strong head. It requires a lot of mental skill.
“We shoot between 15,000 and 20,000 shots per year, but there are many things in the race – the pressure, lactic acid, tiredness – which are hard to recreate in training.”
Sprint (10km for men, 7.5km for women)
All the athletes race, starting in 30-second or one-minute intervals, stopping to shoot twice (once prone, once standing).
“You are fighting more against yourself in this event,” says Makarainen. “It is quite intense because it’s the shortest distance and you know that if you get a good result you get a good position for pursuit.”
Pursuit (12.5km men, 10km women)
The top 60 from the sprint compete in this event, with the winners starting first and the others following according to the amount of time they were behind in the first event. There are four shooting stops (prone, prone, standing and standing).
“The final shooting is really important because then you know your place for the last loop, and you have to give your all,” says Makarainen. “The pressure is higher on the leaders, and the ones who are a little bit hiding behind can suddenly shoot clean and take their chance.”
Individual (20km men, 15km women)
All the athletes race, starting in 30-second or one-minute intervals, stopping to shoot four times (prone, standing, prone and standing).
“Even though it’s the longest distance I would say it’s largely a shooting competition because if you miss a target you get one minute extra time, which is really massive because the skiing times between the best athletes are not that big. This event often has surprise winners.”
Mass start (15km men, 12.5km women)
Only 30 athletes qualify for this event (based on the first three events and World Cup standings) and they start simultaneously and stop four times to shoot (prone, prone, standing and standing).
“You have to be physically strong because, by then, there are a lot of tired athletes. In the first loop you can get crashes and broken poles and so on − it can be tricky,” says Makarainen.
Relay (4x7.5km men, 4x6km women) and mixed relay (2x6km women + 2x7.5km men)
Each athlete stops twice to shoot and is given three extra bullets per stop, which they have to load if needed. In the mixed relay, the two women in each team do the first two laps.
“Sometimes nations that are not so strong can get good results if their first athlete does a good leg and the other athletes get positive energy and think, ‘If my team-mate managed to make a good leg then I can do it too,’” says Makarainen.
“The mixed is good for small countries like Finland that don’t have so many athletes, so I like this best.”
Makarainen, whose six World Championship medals include the 2011 pursuit gold, currently leads the World Cup rankings and hopes to add to her World Cup overall titles from 2011 and 2014. However, her best Olympic finish from her appearances at Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 was sixth place in the mass start in Russia.
“I hope I can continue my good results from the World Cup, but the competition in women’s biathlon is really tight so you have to have a perfect day,” she said.
She identifies Belarusian Darya Domracheva, who won three golds in Sochi; Slovakia’s Anastazia Kuzmina, who is going for a hat-trick of Olympics sprint titles; Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier, who won five golds at last year’s worlds; and Italy’s Dorothea Wierer, currently third in the World Cup rankings, as major threats.
“But I could say 15 to 20 names who could be on the podium,” says Makarainen. “There are a lot of strong girls, and the differences are so small, so it seems there are always new winners.”