Biathlon is quite possibly the quintessential American sport. In case you don’t follow the Winter Olympics, or are one of those valiant Arctic explorers that dons a Canada Goose jacket whenever the temperature drops below 60, biathlon is a winter sport that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting and dates back to the 1700s in Norway when ski-mounted soldiers guarded the border. As I write this, I realize that it’s probably not the most appealing sport for the perhaps less-than-outdoorsy population of Wesleyan, but Wesleyan isn’t exactly a great representation of America, is it?
To seriously generalize for a moment, let’s think about what the average American might like. Using theblaze.com’s list of “the 76 Most American Things Ever,” one notices a few important trends. Skipping past Harleys (38), antiperspirant deodorant (66), and John Wayne (76), one is reminded that Americans absolutely love food, which appears a whopping (pun slightly intended) 19 times on the list. Perhaps more relevant are references to guns and war which occur a total of 16 times (17 if you count Reality TV, because Ronnie from Jersey Shore has some serious guns). It isn’t exactly surprising, given our country’s history of revolution and military-based imperialism, but it is certainly disturbing. Number 10 on the list is the Second Amendment, which is what gives American biathletes the right to take their rifle to McDonald’s (30) in some states. These elements, including the Second Amendment, are all part of the great American ethos of freedom and liberty, which puts the ’Murica in America. Biathlon is undeniably the most appropriate sport for the people of our nation.
So why aren’t Americans obsessed with biathlon yet? Does it not have enough thrill, danger, or sex appeal to satisfy our carnal sports needs? One might argue that biathlon simply cannot compare to something like, say, NASCAR. Coming in at number 29 on our list is NASCAR, a sport consisting of turning left and not slamming into a wall while driving at 200 miles-per-hour. The average American can conceptualize the ski portion of biathlon as a sort of NASCAR on snow, with racers reaching up to 50 miles-per-hour on downhill portions, all done on skis without metal edges. This leads to some phenomenal crashes that are decidedly less fiery than NASCAR’s, but just as exciting.
However, there are some differences between NASCAR, American gun love, and biathlon. To begin with, one archetypal element of NASCAR missing from biathlon is PBR. One might instead find some bottles of Nøgne Ø Imperial Stout, a popular Norwegian beer. The Norwegians (and Nordic countries in general) are especially dominant in biathlon, although I’m beginning to think that it’s due to their much cooler names for things (Pabst Blue Ribbon versus Nøgne Ø Imperial Stout—it’s not hard to see which is better). Even the name of the top biathlete in the world, who is Norwegian, is intimidating and breathtaking: Ole Einar Bjøerndalen. Bjøerndalen happens to have the most career Winter Olympic Medals of any sport, 12 (including gold at Sochi), and also happens to be 40 years old, ancient to the other skiers in his field.
It is important to note that from an athletic perspective, it doesn’t get more intense than biathlon. To begin with, cross-country skiing is one of the most physically demanding sports in existence. Utilizing almost every major muscle group in the body, cross-country skiing demands an unparalleled level of physical fitness and muscular endurance. In fact, cross-country skiers have, on average, the highest maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max) of any professional athletes, including swimmers. For a country obsessed with body image, athletic prowess, and musculature, the cross-country skiing element of biathlon supports it as an easy contender for the title of “Ideal American Sport.”
Finally, to understand biathlon and why it is so incredible one must consider the fact that the skiers transition from racing three to five kilometers at full speed to then shooting at a tiny target, all within a matter of seconds.
“It’s a sport that requires you to hit something the size of an Oreo cookie at 50 yards while you’re at maximum physical exertion,” Team USA’s Lowell Bailey explained in a recent Wall Street Journal article.
For every target the biathletes miss (they have to shoot five every round), they have to ski a short penalty lap. As seen in recent biathlon events in the Sochi Games, penalty laps are often the difference between Gold and international insignificance.
Considering biathlon combines amazing sprint races, guns, and the possibility for American domination at an international level, it’s sad that it isn’t a bigger deal here. There are only 800 registered biathletes in the U.S., compared to probably every Norwegian alive. The biggest hindrance to the development of biathlon in the U.S. is the fact that Americans suck at it (after all, winning is number three on the list of Most American Things Ever). We don’t like being bad at things, and the U.S. has never won an Olympic medal in biathlon. Hopefully, it is only a matter of time until Americans discover biathlon—the perfect sport that they know nothing about.