Cheers and Tears for American Biathletes, Past and Future

The reptiles that own Guns.com sat me down recently and, like anybody attempting to communicate something about the craft of storytelling, told me in the most ungrounded and confusing of terms to start writing pieces that “mean something to me”.  If you know me (which evidently you don’t), my response was, as usual, quick and to the point:

Professor Samsel: I always write something that means something to me.  I write about guns.

Dark Overlords: Right, we know that.  It’s great, you do a great job, just can you write about topics that mean something more to you?

PS: Like sex?  I don’t think that would be appropriate.

DO: No.  Gun related.  You know, we want the audience to feel like they know you better.

PS: You don’t tell me what to do!  My wife and kids don’t know me!

DO: Hush.  You’re not married.

PS: That’s besides the point, you snake in the grass bastards! They won’t someday.

I knew what they meant.  I just couldn’t help being difficult because I didn’t like what they were saying.  Fact is, dudes, I just report the news, I have no interest in making it.  It’s not meant to offend, I’m just not too personal with anybody.

But, whatever.  In a recession economy, you can be either be right and starve or you can be writing and whine so, like any 21st century ar-teest with a hair on their ass, I poured myself a pint of domestic suds and got to reflecting on the challenge of opening up to a bunch of strangers, I grew up with i.e. gun folk.

And guess what?  To my surprise, it didn’t take too much juice, for something to shake loose.  One word, three syllables: biathlon.

The Game

If you scholars are picturing a track n’ swim competition and you’re totally confused as to why I would mention it on Guns.com, you shouldn’t be, but I can’t say I blame you and, as you’ll hopefully come to see, you’re proving my point.  If you know where I’m heading with this, well then I like you a little more, but let’s take a moment to catch everybody up.

A mixed-bag of cross-country skiing and precision shooting, the biathlon is one of the world’s oldest (est. 1864) and most internationally successful shooting games (with a gun at least) and has been featured, on and off, in the Winter Olympics since 1924, regularly since the 50s.

I remember well the first time I knew such a game existed.  When I was younger and sprier and didn’t walk with a slight, almost indiscernible limp, I was a reasonably competitive hockey player, skating for a junior hockey team out of Pennsylvania.  One early spring, I played a tournament at the Olympic facility in Lake Placid, New York.  While there, I found myself milling around in some cheesy gift shop looking over a bunch of lapel pins that each represented an Olympic event: stick figure dudes skiing, or tobogganing, or figure skating.  There was one I couldn’t place though, a figure of a man, standing upright with skies, aiming what was unmistakably a rifle, in a tray enigmatically marked, “BIATHLON”.   I was intrigued, so I took the pin up to the counter and asked the old codger behind the glass to explain the meaning of it to me.  He didn’t know what it was either.

Like many Olympic events, the biathlon is at its core just a race. Biathletes ski around a cross-country track; the guy or gal who finishes in the shortest amount of time gets their shot at a Wheaties box.  What makes the game unique however is that either two or four “shooting rounds” punctuate the race (which usually falls somewhere between 20k and 10k, the latter called the “sprint”) and you’ve got to hoof the gun around with you the entire time too, which must weigh at least 7.7 pounds (it’s a nicer looking number in metric).

Half of the target rounds are shot in a prone position, the other half are shot standing and it’s these shooting rounds that really separates the wheat from the chaff.

For a poor shooting performance, you get punished with your choice of a penalty lap (usually 150 meters, which world class biathletes can do in 20 seconds) or a time penalty (one minute usually) added to your finishing time.  For a good shooting performance, you get nothing (kind of like life), only the privilege of continuing on your merry way without shame or hindrance.

For each shooting round, the biathlete must hit five targets and each missed target must be “atoned for” with either sweat or seconds as detailed above.  There is also the option to use an extra cartridge to finish off a target, but these carry with them their own set of eccentricities.  There are only three of these extra bullets in a target round and they’re actually waiting for participants at the shooting range rather than carried on their person like the other cartridges.  The significance of this should be clear: if you get to the range and the leaders used the extra cartridges already, tough titties said the kitties when the milk ran dry.  No extra shot for you.  And if you miss with that bonus shot, the same penance must be paid as if you’d missed the target with your own bullet—you can take a lap or lose valuable time, one or the other.

Personally I like the message that sends: there will be no rewards for success, only punishments for incompetence.

The Guns

In days of yore (from 1958 to 1965), competitors shot some real cheek slappers—high-powered “deer rifles” to us yanks, chambered in .30-06 Springfield and 7.62x51mm NATO.  They also shot at all sorts of distances, with some meets requiring shooters to tag targets out to 250 meters.  The lack of standardization led to all sorts of squabbling amongst competing countries so, by 1978, .22 LR rimfire shot out of bolt action or Fortner action rifle became the standard round and arm and 50 m the standard distance.  If you’re at all familiar with competitive smallbore than the manufacturer names for biathlon guns should sound familiar—Anshutz and Izhmash lead the pack.  Marlin is also a very popular maker of biathlon guns, but that’s about it on the big names.  Some smaller manufacturers—Altius, chief among them—are making a name for themselves as well.

The Appeal

As should always be the case in sports, what draws me the most to the biathlon is the game itself.  In theory and practice, the biathlon fearlessly juxtaposes two of the most valued competencies in human survival in a manner unrivaled or neglected by other sports: extreme endurance (a pursuit of discipline, focus and strategy) with extreme precision (another but entirely different pursuit of discipline, focus and strategy).  A stand in for defense training (it should come as no surprise Norwegian soldiers invented this game, though cave paintings in Scandinavia depict folks shooting bows and arrows on skis dating back to B.C.), the biathlon purposely pushes in the body in the exact opposite direction it needs to be in to shoot properly—stressed, hands and head shaking, heart going a million miles a minute, breathing quick shallow and uncontrollably, dead ass tire.  It then asks the biathlete to do exactly that, shoot properly, lest they have to incapacitate their shooting abilities even more by having to chug further and harder.

I purposely separated body and biathlete back there, because the game reinforces that these are really two separate entities when it comes to survival training—body and mind—and being successful at the target rounds is so much more than simply regaining your composure.  Biathletes literally have to meditate to regain control over their bodies at these shooting stages and that’s not an option, that’s the science of it.   Skiing crooked miles (the course is really a series of small hills, with elevations up to 600 meters), often as the snow falls, emphasizes that mother earth doesn’t care how much of an iron-blooded warrior you fancy yourself.

You have to be in great shape but you cannot be in good enough shape to not to be affected by these conditions, only mentally prepared enough to handle the stress.  You cannot “fight” your way through a biathlon like you can say other track and field events because they don’t require this return to center that the shooting rounds do (if you can think of another Olympic sport that does this, please tell me), and in a sea of sports that have little to no real world application, the biathlon stands above the rest to me as actually “meaning something”.

How many times in your life have you had to shove a pole in the ground to clear a chasm?  How many times in your life has kicking a ball around factored into your job or dinner plate?  What the hell does figure skating have to do with anything?

As I see it, when it comes to testing a man’s practical ability to survive a world that knows neither please nor thank you, there are few better gauge’s of one’s individual skill and preparedness with connections to real world pursuits (hunting and self defense) that even the dimmest among us can easily draw.  And as a metaphor for life—an arduous, monotonous journey that only pauses long enough to put your finger on the trigger—accept no substitutes.

The Tragedy

I’m not much of a “one world” type of guy, though I am a closet freak for the Olympics (I was holed up with a broken arm during Nagano games and forced to watch every minute of it, seeing as NBC was the only watchable channel our antenna picked up).  It seems to me though that Americans have a love hate relationship with the Games, especially the winter games, and this pisses me off.  Some of it’s sour grapes, some if it is indifference, a lot of it’s ignorance.

Listen, how else are we going to lord over other weaker nations if not by the demonstrable superiority of our athletes?  Right or wrong, we clearly aren’t turning any heads overseas in terms of our prowess with money or knack for international diplomacy.  So I ask again, how else are foreigners going to know that we’re better then them if we can’t embarrass them with our outlandish displays of swagger, money and power through the virtual domination of mindless sports?

To me, the cold war was never really about nukes.  It was about pastimes we never really cared too much about until we found out the Pinkos were good at them.  That, my friends, is capitalism in action.  The obligation to beat the other guy because why the hell wouldn’t we?  It’s the other guy.  In the scope of our existence, the only reason he’s there is to be bested.

So accordingly, this biathlon deal-y reads as American as apple pie to me.  A game for tough sons of bitches that know how to put lead on target?  That’s got our name written all over it.  We’re Americans—we are guns.  We conquered the new world at gunpoint and we wash our balls with ice water.  How doesn’t that translate?

But the sad and embarrassing fact is this: the United States has not won a single solitary biathlon medal.   Not even a bronze (which would almost be more shameful than not medaling at all).  We’ve won medals in basically every single winter Olympics event, but not the biathlon.  We’ve medaled in curling.  I’m gonna write that one again for you guys so it sinks in.  We won a bronze medal in 2006 in curling yet we’ve never once taken the prize in the mother of all shooting games.

Frankly, I’m depressed and ashamed.  The time for finger pointing seemed upon me and I wanted to blame the media because it’s easy and would probably make for a more popular article.  The angle would have been about how those liberal handwringers don’t mention the biathlon because they want to keep guns out of our kids’ hands and heads at all cost. But I can’t in good conscience write that because it’s total bullshit.  NBC has televised the biathlon since the 80s and not just regularly but in some of its tastiest time slots.

Jay Hakkinen gave us our best Olympic finish—an underwhelming 9th place in Turin, Italy.  In Vancouver in 2010 we came pretty damn close, at least in our own imaginations, with the entrance of, once world leading biathlete, Tim Burke.  Burke fell ill at the Olympics and ended up finishing somewhere we’ll do the courtesy of not even reprinting here.  A bald eagle cried that day.

Now, I know some smart-ass is gonna chime in with, there’s a World Championship and there’s the US Biathlon Association, which has produced some world contenders, namely Jay Hakkinen.  But screw that hippy crap.  Who the hell cares?  This ain’t Disney World, this is real life, and in real life it’s the Olympics or it’s nothing.

Biting the bullet

Without a scapegoat to dump our shitty showings in the biathlon on, the only conclusion I can come to is that we, the American gun owner, are to blame for this or at least the only ones who we can look to, to care enough about it to do anything to remedy it.  We’ve watched a decline in youth participation in shooting games and in hunting and instead of taking a kid shooting, we’ve pissed and moaned about “the other guys” keeping us down.  That’s lazy, easy and cheap.  Shooting facilities still exist, private and public lands still allow shooting on them, every year every state in the union hosts a hunting season.  A little money and a little effort is all it takes, and really, why did you have kids if you weren’t going to do things with them?  Why do we have friends if we aren’t going to share our hobbies with them?  Why are we so fat?

And with that out of the way, I do think there still is a lot of hope for future American biathletes. The Boy Scouts of America (who taught yours truly much of what he knows) offers a Bikeathlon variant at their national Scout jamboree.  Their version combines BMX biking with air rifle shooting.  By virtue of the Interweb, I’ve seen plenty of Youtube videos of average Americans pumping through homemade run n’ gun courses; the exact same concept as biathlon and more realistic for those residing in warmer climates.  What I like about a lot of these videos is this:  folks aren’t training for the Zombie Apocalypse or an uprising or some nonsense in a lot of these. They’re training to beat their time, beat themselves really.  That’s the kind of serious discipline and unadorned focus that wins gold medals.  The kind of stuff humanity, wherever it resides, inherently recognizes as excellence and the kind of stuff we need to encourage at all cost or  China is going to eat us alive. So please kids, if you’re good with a rifle give cross-country skiing a second thought.  Do it for America. Do it for yourselves.  Do it for me.

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