Ted Grace

Rifle and Skis: A Military Biathlon

Civilian use of the Ethan Allen Biathlon center is restricted to two nights per week; I am there on a Tuesday evening, driving up to the firing range in a rusty Subaru with Nordic ski poles rattling in the backseat. Ever since passing the barbed wire gate of the National Guard Training facility in Jerico, VT a few minutes ago, I couldn’t help feel that a civilian biathlon club located in a US military complex might interfere with training operations, or worse, pose a security threat. My fears are not unfounded– shadowy figures dart suddenly across the road, black rifles strapped to their backs. For a second I think they may be lost biathletes, but the army fatigues suggest army recruits on a night patrol. I wait for them to cross, the last man in the line glancing fugitively at me. In a matter of seconds they disappear back into the woods, and I drive onward up to the range, snowflakes falling heavy and soft.

In fact, the distinction between that military patrol and a group of biathletes is quite blurry. The sport of biathlon originated as a Norwegian military training exercise dating back to the 18th century, where patrols of soldiers would ski through the forest, pausing to shoot their high-caliber rifles at targets resembling enemy soldiers. This exercise, named Forsvarsrennet (military patrol) was first modified for the Olympics in 1968, consisting of a sole 20-km Nordic ski followed by three rounds of shooting, with much smaller caliber rifles (.22) for better accuracy. While today’s wars are fought mostly in dry deserts, the National Guard still maintains a US military biathlon team, perhaps as a nod to the old Nordic military tradition. This US National Guard team trains in Jerico, Vermont; and I was driving to their training facility that night, beginning the training for my own personal biathlon.

Lights flare in the distance, and I hear the distinct crack of a rifle—the firing range looms ahead. The high-pitched report of the .22 caliber rifle is very familiar to me—I am immediately transported back to long summers spent on a Boy Scout firing range with the very same rifles. These six years spent in the Boy Scouts, with its gun-friendly atmosphere and military-like organization inspired me to take up biathlon a few weeks ago—I perceived the structure of the sport to mirror the military organization of Boy Scouts.

I pull into the parking lot and trudge through the woods, skis and poles in hand. Far away, I see small black targets twinkling in the falling snow, separated by a wide field illuminated by floodlights. As I stand there, a tall biathlete on skis scuttles into sight, his mouth contorted in a harsh grimace, panting out ragged breaths. Above his head towers a long instrument, a gleaming black rifle starkly contrasting against the falling snow. He brings his weapon to bear, and five shots ring out with cruel precision– all five markers of the range flip over to mark a successful shooting round. The figure continues on his journey, the Russian flag emblazoned on his uniform fading away into the darkness. I stand there in shock at the violence of the scene. There seems to be less of a distinction between military patrols and biathletes than I once thought.

The flag on his uniform is eerily reminiscent of how Russia and other northern European states used the biathlon as a surrogate to demonstrate military prowess in winter warfare during the Cold War. The biathlon in the 1960’s was even called “military patrol”, and many athletes were recruited directly from the military. Though the Cold War has long ended, victories in the biathlon still have nationalistic undertones. In congratulating the women’s 7.5 km relay team in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Vladimir Putin called their efforts “a test of unity and [their] ability to fight with full dedication”, a sound byte that could be used to commend a tactical military victory instead of a sporting achievement.

Rifle training is supposed to start at 5PM tonight. I check my watch. It’s 4:58 PM. Biathletes cycle through the range firing range, ignoring me completely. Eventually, the tall Russian returns, finished with his training for the moment. He notices me, and a moment of uncomfortable silence passes. “You must be here for rifle training,” he says in a thick Russian accent. He smiles at me and I can see sharp incisors flash in the floodlights. This man looks like a wolf. In a fluid motion he unclips his skis and beckons me with a gloved finger to a lodge. “We love new members,” he murmurs, almost speaking to himself. The rifle bounces menacingly on his back as he walks, causing me to momentarily forget my response to that statement. “I’m definitely new to the sport,” I answer finally. The man smiles again. His movements are sharp, very controlled and he walks in a sharp clip. Staring at his proud, upright back as I stumble onward behind him, I remember the ex-military man that used to command the honor guard in our local Boy Scout troop. Their ways of walking are uncannily identical.

As I wait in line for my rifle safety test, a group of young biathletes walks through the range, rifles slung over their backs. I overhear them chattering away excitedly about their training schedule and the homework due the next day. On their warm-up jackets, the logo of Burke Mountain Academy stands out—these are high school athletes, not military recruits. Later, I pull one of them aside to ask him if he considers the biathlon to be some form of military training, given the history of the sport. Daniel seems confused by the question—the biathlon for him is like any other sport—he says the evening sport practices on the range are far removed from strict military training of a military program. When he’s shooting targets, “They’re just metal plates [. . .] there’s nothing else to it”.

I understand what Daniel is saying, but I still can’t get rid of the idea that everyone here is training for some winter combat operation. Over the next two weeks, I slowly learn the motions of the sport; unslinging the rifle from my back, pausing to slow down my breathing before shooting, and loading clips quickly into the rifle. As the weight of the rifle becomes familiar, I forget the military history of the sport and the deadliness of the rifle, and I focus instead on the physical fitness and technique required of the sport. I had always considered biathlon to be a natural extension of the military culture that I learned form Boy Scouts, but now I see the biathlon simply as a way to challenge and push myself physically, and an opportunity to begin a lifelong pursuit.