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How ski warfare created biathlon

Skis + rifle = sport?

Ever wondered how biathlon came to be? Although it’s a popular sport in Europe, the combination of ski racing and rifle shooting strikes many Americans as odd and unfamiliar. But, it turns out, biathlon isn’t a Frankenstein sport that came out of nowhere. In fact, it has a long military history that stretches back several centuries.

It all started in Scandinavia during the 19th century, where a precursor to biathlon was a military drill that trained Norwegian soldiers to shoot rifles while skiing. As skiing grew in popularity, so did military applications of the sport. By 1900, ski warfare tactics had spread from Norway across Europe. In World War I, ski troops fought on both sides of the conflict and, once it ended, the modern Olympics gave ski troops a new avenue for their skills.

In 1924, an event combining skiing and shooting was included at the inaugural winter games in Chamonix, France. It was called “military patrol” and was included at several Olympics until 1948, when it was demonstrated for the last time in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

In the meantime, however, ski warfare continued to evolve.

Finnish ski troops, 1940.
Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

During World War II, Finnish troops famously used their ski troops to frustrate Soviet invaders during the “Winter War.” Their success inspired other nations to improve and promote their own ski troops, including the United States, which deployed the 10th Mountain Division to fight in subsequent WWII battles. After the war ended, soldiers who had learned skiing for battle brought home a new love of the sport.

During the next decade, the ski industry boomed and the interest in the sport, combined with the decline of military patrol and culmination of the war, invigorated civilian biathlon competition. In 1960, the sport was officially introduced as an Olympic sport at the Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California.

Between then and now the sport has continued to transform. Although much has changed, modern biathlon still retains the unmistakable traces of its military origins. To learn what those are and more about the history of ski warfare, make sure to watch the video above.

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