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biathlon

With only water-pistol practice to aid his target shooting, Leslie Anthony attempts to ski a professional circuit in the Callaghan Valley without putting a bullet in his leg.

photography: paul morrison

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quinting down a rifle barrel amid the snow-laden trees, I concentrate on visualizing my bullet’s path to the bull’seye through the blur of snowflakes. As I increase my finger pressure on the trigger, I summon my Inner Olympian for this crucial biathlon moment—when a high girlish giggle suddenly erupts just to my left. I fire, and miss. Again. I’ve come to Whistler Olympic Park here in the Callaghan Valley, 16 kilometres southwest of Whistler, to test my skills on the biathlon range where Olympic athletes will compete in the 2010 Winter Games. Combining cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, the biathlon—from a Greek word meaning “two tests”—challenges competitors to ski a course punctuated with metal targets. My companions on the course today are a group of Japanese tourists. Arming skiers is not a new concept. Ancient petroglyphs in Norway depicted hunters on skis pursuing game with spears, and early Greek and Roman historians describe military uses of biathlon. The Trysil Rifle and Ski Club of Norway, the first-known biathlon club, formed in 1861 with the objective of national defence. Shooting on skis debuted at the 1924 Winter Olympics, but biathlon mustered only demonstration status well into the mid-20th century. The sport finally appeared on the event card of the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, though it wasn’t until 1992 in Albertville, France, that women’s biathlon was added. Just in time. Canada’s biathlon superstar, Myriam Bédard, won bronze in Albertville, and took two golds in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994. Today, biathlon is a darling of World Cup and Olympic competition, drawing huge television audiences in Europe. It is a peculiar spectacle, with skiers engaging in intervals of furious exercise interrupted by bouts of calm, deliberate target shooting. It takes years of practice to develop the ability to control your breathing and lower your heart rate from a race level of 200 beats per minute to somewhere in the 140 to 160 range needed to fire a rifle with accuracy. The more training, the faster your heart rate

drops: three to five minutes for the untrained, a minute if you’re in good shape, and, for well-trained biathletes, about 20 seconds. All biathlons, no matter the distance or format, involve loops that begin and end at the shooting stadium and require skiers to shoot both from a standing position and prone, propped up on their elbows. After skiing a five-kilometre circuit, the Japanese women flanking me on either side, have each hit five of five targets required, while I’m zero for three. Having never aimed anything heftier than a water pistol, frankly, I suck. I line up my next shot, this time channelling Bédard. Ping! Suddenly, one for four doesn’t seem too bad. That is, until I’m told that organizers hang the targets just 10 metres away for novices like us. Olympic biathlon targets are set 50 metres distant, far enough that the most minute body movement can throw off the shooter’s aim. Several minutes after skiing the race loop, I can still hear my pulse pounding in my ears. When I miss my final shot, I blame my inaccuracy on the high-powered aerobic exercise. Perhaps I need to stop imagining the targets as little ducks popping up at a carnival game. While the real biathlon athletes fire .22-calibre bullets, we’re just shooting pellets with our 3.5-kilogram rifles. It’s a necessary precaution (can’t have biathlon tourists accidentally maiming each other), though a small lever over the rifle barrel guards against inadvertent discharge. Flipping this bolt release is one of several steps required before the first shot can be squeezed off. Every moment of fumbling wastes valuable time, and every missed target costs the skier a full minute—or the time it takes to ski a penalty loop of 150 metres. The better you shoot, the faster your final time. As the petite Japanese sharpshooters hoist their incongruously large weapons and move on to the next target, I shoulder my rifle and grab my ski poles. I have 600 metres of penalty skiing to do. Apparently, I’ll need a little more practice before I go for the gold.

Writer Leslie Anthony (in orange toque) spends a day on the biathlon course at Whistler Olympic Park in the Callaghan Valley, learning to ski and shoot alongside a trio of Japanese visitors. opposite: Trainer Raphael Guilmin, left, coaches Leslie Anthony on the biathlon course.

Several minutes after skiing the race loop, I can still hear my pulse pounding in my ears. When I miss my final shot, I blame my inaccuracy on the high-powered aerobic exercise. Perhaps I need to stop imagining the targets as little ducks popping up at a carnival game.

Info: (www.biathloncanada.ca; www.whistlerolympicpark.com; www.vcmbc.com). British Colum b ia Magazine: winter 2009

B r i t i s h C o lu mbia Magazine: winter 2009

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Do-it-yourself Winter Games: Biathlon