What are the rules of biathlon?

Biathlon Start

Biathlon events employ either an interval start, a pursuit start or a mass start.

In events with an interval start (individual and sprint), competitors leave the starting gate at fixed intervals. Specifically, one competitor starts every 30 seconds, and the winner is the biathlete with the lowest net time (time elapsed from when he or she begins to when he or she finishes, plus penalty time, if applicable).

In the pursuit events, biathletes start according to their performance in the sprint events. The winner of the sprint starts first, and the rest of the competitors start at intervals that correspond to their time-behind-the-winner in the sprint competition. In other words, if the sprint’s second-place finisher lost the sprint by eight seconds, they would start the pursuit eight seconds after the sprint winner starts. The winner of the pursuit is the biathlete who crosses the finish line first.

It should be noted that when using results of the first race to determine the starting order of the pursuit-style (second) race, officials delete the tenths of seconds from the skiers’ times. For example, if the results of the first race are "(1) Smith 25:12.9; (2) Jones 25:14.2; (3) Clark 25:21.7," then, for the pursuit-style start race, the tenths are deleted. So, Smith skis first, Jones starts two seconds later, and Clark starts seven seconds after that (nine seconds after Smith). If several skiers finished the first race within a second of each other, then they will each be starting the pursuit race at the same time. Therefore, the start is designed to accommodate several skiers at once.

In mass start events (the men’s 15km, women’s 12.5km and the three relays), all competitors line up across the starting line and start together. In the individual races, the athletes who cross the finish line first are the winners. In the relays, the first competitor for each team start together, and each subsequent team member begins when he or she is tagged by the incoming team member in the relay hand-over zone. The winner is the team whose fourth member crosses the finish line first.

The Finish

In the interval start events (the individual event and the sprint), competitors are ranked according to their net times after any penalties (in the individual event) have been assessed. Thus, it is possible for two competitors to record the same total time, and hence, to tie.

There are no ties in the mass start, pursuit or relay events, in which the first competitor to cross the finish line is the winner. In those events, a photo-finish camera will be used to record the finish. In any close finishes, the decision shall be made according to the first part of the first foot to cross the finish line.

Any competitor or relay team that is lapped during an event must immediately withdraw and will be recorded as “did not finish” (DNF) in the results.

Biathlon Skiing Rules

Competitors are permitted to ski in whichever style they choose (classical or freestyle), but all biathletes use the freestyle technique because it is significantly faster. In the relay events, the leadoff skiers for each team must use the classical technique for the first 100 meters so as not to disrupt the tracks of their fellow competitors. After the first 100m, the skiers may switch to the freestyle technique.

A competitor who wishes to pass another competitor must let the lead competitor know his intention, at which point the skier who is in front must move to the side of the trail to allow the trailing competitor to pass him easily. The skier who is being overtaken must move to the side on demand even if the trail is wide enough for him to be passed anyway. This obligation does not apply for the 100 meters before the finish line or the 100 meters before the hand-over zone during a relay. 

The rifle must be carried on the back, with the barrel pointing up. If the rifle is so damaged during the competition that it cannot be carried on the back, it must be carried in hand to the shooting range and then must be immediately exchanged for the team reserve rifle.

Biathlon Shooting Rules

Each time a competitor stops at the shooting range, he or she fires five rounds at five targets. (The only exception to this rule is the relay, in which competitors have three spare rounds for each shooting bout.) The distance between the firing line and the targets is 50 meters (164 feet).

During any given event, some of the shooting bouts will be conducted in the standing position and some in the prone position; the sequence varies according to the event. Competitors are not allowed to remove their skis while shooting in either of the two positions.

The shooting range is flat and level and contains 30 shooting lanes, half of which are designated for standing position shooting and half of which are for prone position shooting, except in the pursuit event. (In the pursuit, all 30 lanes are originally set up for prone position shooting, and then are switched to standing position targets during the course of the race.) The lanes are between 2.7 and 3.0 meters (roughly between eight and a half and nine and a half feet) in width, with a metal target set up at the end of each. The lanes and targets are numbered from right to left, starting with number one on the extreme right. The target diameters are extremely small, 115 millimeters (4.53 inches) for standing and 45 millimeters (1.77 inches) for prone. (The prone position targets are smaller because a biathlete has more stability – and is therefore able to shoot more accurately – when lying on the ground than when standing.)

How is the biathlon scored?

Targets are made of a white metal face plate with five holes in a horizontal row. Behind the holes in the face plate are the black hit plates which fall backward, or send an electronic pulse, when hit by a bullet and at the same time raising a white flap in front of the hole – thus causing a color change from black to white. When the target is scored, the black spots are counted to determine the number of penalties that a competitor has. The fallen plates can be reset by electronic impulse.

Competitors use smallbore rifles that are equipped with a shooting sling. The diameter of the barrel must be .22 inches (.22 caliber). The magazines for the rifle may only hold five bullets. In total, the rifle has a minimum weight of 3.5 kg (7.7 lbs). The rifle must not be loaded – a competitor must load his or her gun at the shooting range – and must be carried in the harness with the barrel up while a competitor is skiing.

Each rifle is equipped with both a rear and fore sight to help the competitor hit the targets. A competitor places his eye up to the rear sight to focus on the target. The fore sight is a marker at the end of the barrel that the competitor uses to align with the target before shooting.

For the two shooting positions, the competitors must comply with specific restrictions regarding their body placement.

For the prone position:

  • The rifle may only be in touch with hands, shoulder and cheek
  • The lower side of the wrist of the arm supporting the rifle must be distinctly raised from the ground (snow surface)
  • The other arm may touch the ground for a maximum length of 10cm (about 4 inches) from the elbow.
  • Competitors may not remove their skis while shooting or place any kind of object under the skis

For the standing position:

  • Competitors must stand without any support
  • Only the competitor’s hands, shoulder, cheek and the breast next to the shoulder may be in contact with the rifle
  • The competitor’s arm supporting the rifle may be held against the chest or put onto the hip
  • Competitors may not remove their skis while shooting or place any kind of object under the skis

NBC Olympics Research contributed to this report