When the 2014 Sochi Olympics open this week, the attention of most American viewers will gravitate toward the familiar marquee events—Alpine skiing, figure skating, luge, and hockey.
But for the Russians hosting the Games, interest will focus on another sport: biathlon. In Sochi, this combination of cross-country skiing and shooting will account for 33 medals awarded across 11 events. While biathlon is largely ignored in the United States, it is currently the most popular winter spectator sport in Europe; in Russia, its following challenges that for hockey. International competition garners intense media coverage, along with huge sponsorships and race prizes. Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the New Jersey Nets, also serves as president of the Russian Biathlon Union; he has invested millions of his own money into the sport and has vowed to resign if Russia doesn’t capture at least two gold medals.
If this intensity seems a little surprising from our point of view, it’s because biathlon in Russia is more than a sport: It evokes a multitude of cultural, social, and historical trends spanning more than a millennium. During the Soviet era, biathlon became a metaphor for expressing national values of speed, self-sufficiency, and military readiness, built on decades of rigorous inculcation by the state. In the aftermath of two recent terrorist bombings in Volgograd—formerly Stalingrad, a city equated with wartime devastation—the sport’s military overtones take on even greater significance at Sochi, located close to the home territory of regional Islamic separatists. So, while Americans are viewing biathlon as a quizzical sideshow, Russians will be watching their very national pride hang in the balance.
Although the USSR did not participate in the Olympics until after World War II, sport, and especially skiing, was part of the national defense program almost from the country’s inception in 1917. Along with the first five-year plan for industrial development in the 1930s, Joseph Stalin introduced the Ready for Labor and Defense Program, a physical fitness protocol for workers and students. Two of the mandatory disciplines, for both men and women, were cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship. Thus, every citizen in the USSR was exposed to the fundamental principles of biathlon, decades before the sport was introduced.
During World War II, skiing gained even greater prominence, as the USSR transformed lessons learned at the hands of Finnish ski troops during the Winter War of 1939-40 into a potent means of thwarting the German invasion of 1942. But the war with Germany was costly. From 1940 to 1945, 27 million Soviet soldiers and citizens lost their lives—around 15 percent of the USSR’s population. This loss of life, combined with Germany’s scorched-earth policy across 750,000 square miles of Soviet territory, reinforced the importance of border security and national defense.
Meanwhile, an event similar to biathlon had been part of the Winter Olympics from the beginning. Military patrol, a team competition restricted to army personnel, was a demonstration sport from the first Winter Games in 1924 through 1948; it was dropped after World War II because of antimilitary sentiment. In the mid-1950s, the USSR and Scandinavian countries lobbied for a new ski-shooting contest. Their campaign led to the introduction of biathlon as we know it today at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics.
Soviet athletes immediately dominated international competition. From 1958 to 1977, the top five most successful biathletes came from the USSR; and out of the top 25, half were Soviet. Most impressive is that in six consecutive Olympics—from 1968 through 1988—the Soviet Union never relinquished the gold medal in the biathlon relay.
Soviet success in biathlon came about not only thanks to an enormous pool of citizens well trained in both skiing and shooting, but also because the government actively promoted the sport as a response to the devastation experienced during World War II. In the immediate postwar years, the government sought to keep the war memories alive by staging sports festivals and naming them after distinguished athletes who died in combat. Ski racing, given the success of the Red Army’s ski divisions, was particularly evocative of the war, and the government adopted skiing as a fundamental national skill associated with the stoical endurance of the battle-hardened Soviet population. And no competition contrasted the proletarian aspects of cross-country skiing with the bourgeois Alpine disciplines better than biathlon—with its additional shooting component, it was more masculine and militaristic than any other ski event.
When the Politburo honored Aleksandr Privalov (competing for KGB-sponsored Dinamo sport club) and Vladimir Melanin (a Red Army athlete) after winning the silver and gold medals in biathlon at the Innsbruck Winter Games, it was a demonstration to the nation that the joint program of physical fitness training and border defense had paid off, this time in front of a worldwide audience. As Nikita Khrushchev told Melanin and Privalov during the 1964 Kremlin ceremony: “You fellas shot good and straight. If one of our enemies comes over the border, plug him right in the forehead!”
The downfall of communism in the early 1990s marked the beginning of a new era in biathlon. A number of strong programs emerged from the breakup of the USSR, while reunified Germany merged two powerful teams. Olympic competition opened to women in 1992, and new technology turned biathlon into an exciting TV sport. The result has been an increase in the popularity of biathlon, among both participants and spectators, and in the intensity of competition. Though less dominant than the giant USSR in the 1960s and ’70s, Russia is neck and neck with Germany and Norway in team world cup standings for men, with Austria and France close behind; Germany, Ukraine, Norway, and Russia top the women’s division. In Sochi, national fervor will be at its most intense during the three team relay events, especially the new, mixed-gender competition.
President Vladimir Putin has channeled $51 billion into the Sochi Games, and as the figurehead of the Russian Federation, he has invested much more than money as well: The country’s prestige itself stands in the limelight. If a single event symbolizes Russian resolve, it is biathlon—a contest that not only represents the modern ambitions of the nation and its oligarchs, but one that, even today, recalls Khrushchev’s warning to those who would dare threaten the homeland.
William D. Frank is the author of “Everyone to Skis! Skiing in Russia and the Rise of Soviet Biathlon” (2013). He received his PhD in history from the University of Washington and was a candidate for the 1980 US Olympic Team in biathlon.