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Where in the world does biathlon come from?

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During the week of November 30 through December 8, the world’s top biathletes will descend on Östersund, Sweden to open the International Biathlon Union’s 2019/2020 World Cup series. The crowds will be enormous: in the twenty-first century, biathlon has evolved into one of the most popular spectator sports in Europe. This unlikely combination of cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship makes for an exciting display of physical dexterity and mental concentration whether in the individual time trial events, pursuits, head-to-head mass starts or relay races.

The War Years: 1939-1945

Biathlon is very much the product of the mid-twentieth century’s war years, especially the Winter War when a vastly outnumbered group of mobile Finnish ski troops held the mechanized forces of the Soviet Union at bay from late November 1939 to March 1940.

In response to the success of the Finns, the Soviet government organized a massive ski mobilization effort prior to the German invasion of 1941. The Soviet counteroffensive during the winter of 1941-1942 owed much of its success to the Red Army ski battalions that had formed as a result of the mobilization effort the previous year. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine transformed the Soviet skier into an icon of national defense during its Great Patriotic War against Germany and then well into the post-World War II era.

After the war, both Finland and the Soviet Union lobbied hard for the inclusion of biathlon (a distillation of the military patrol race for individual competitors) into the Winter Olympics program. World championship competition began in 1958 and biathlon gained a spot at the Olympics for the first time during the Squaw Valley Games of 1960.

Susan Dunklee of the United States competing in Kontiolahti, Finland in 2017. 

Biathlon’s genesis in pre-Revolutionary Russia and independent Finland

The roots of biathlon evolved in the Norwegian army during the eighteenth century but the sport’s more immediate genesis stems from an obscure ski manual prepared for the Russian military in 1912.

The author of this book, Skis in the Art of War, was K. B. E. E. Eimeleus, a Finnish-born junior officer serving in the Russian Imperial Cavalry. Due to the disastrous consequences of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, an ill-advised conflict provoked by Russia in a northern climate along the empire’s far-eastern border, it was apparent that in future warfare, the Russian army would have to fight again under similar winter conditions.

The roots of biathlon evolved in the Norwegian army during the eighteenth century but the sport’s more immediate genesis stems from an obscure ski manual prepared for the Russian military in 1912.

Eimeleus wrote his handbook with just such a scenario in mind. Although the Bolshevik Revolution put paid to any systematic ski training in the Russian army, Eimeleus used his expertise to revive ski training in his native Finland after independence in 1917. The government placed him in charge of revamping the cavalry regimen at the Finnish army’s garrison in Lapeenranta in the Karelia region, where—twenty years later—the skiing Finns would decimate the Soviet Union’s armored divisions. Many of the fundamentals of ski training detailed in Eimeleus’s handbook for use by the Russian Imperial Army before the revolution became integrated into the Finnish military program at Lapeenranta during this inter-war period.

Although Eimeleus didn’t live to see it, Skis in the Art of War was a boon to his fellow countrymen during the Winter War and—almost half a century after its publication—played a crucial role in the development of the sport of biathlon.

William D. Frank is a writer, artist, musician and occasional professor of Russian Imperial and Soviet history. His 2013 book, Everyone to Skis! Skiing in Russia and the Rise of Soviet Biathlon, received an Ullr Award from the International Skiing History Association in 2015.

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