Ever wondered why the Winter Olympics features a sport in which skiers carry rifles on their back? As it turns out, it has its roots in nordic winter warfare. Before the Biathlon, in which competitors must ski cross-country, stopping at set intervals to fire on stationary targets from the standing and prone positions, there was Military Patrol.
This sport, which debuted at the 1924 Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix, France, featured four-man patrol units that operated not unlike a fire team: they included a lieutenant, a noncommissioned officer (NCO) and two privates. All competitors were on skis and carrying daypacks that weighed roughly 20 pounds apiece. In its original form, the three enlisted members of the unit carried small-bore rifles, while the officer carried a pistol.
In 1924, the race covered 30 kilometers, or nearly 19 miles. When each team got to the finish, the NCO and privates would put lead downrange, with 30-second time bonuses granted for each target hit.
“According to the official report of the 1924 Winter Games, ‘The course must be completed by the entire patrol, which must dress in military uniform and be equipped with arms and backpacks,'” according to a report from Olympics.com.
“Six patrols (Finland, France, Italy, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Switzerland) were sent off at three-minute intervals from the Olympic Stadium, where the race would also finish.”
Ultimately, the Swiss would earn Military Patrol’s first and only gold medal.
“The Swiss skiers’ time of 4:00:06 gave them an advantage of more than six minutes over their Scandinavian rivals, 19 minutes over France and 22 minutes over Czechoslovakia,” the official recap states. “Italy and Poland withdrew because of difficult weather conditions.”
At the next Winter Olympics in 1928, Military Patrol would return only as a demonstration sport, without medals on the line. It would make two more appearances, in 1936 and 1948, before disappearing from the Olympic program. In 1936, at the games held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, the sport had a brush with infamy: Adolf Hitler overruled the International Olympic Committee to include Military Patrol as a demonstration sport. That year, a four-man Italian team won and was honored by the country’s Fascist prime minister, Benito Mussolini.
The Olympic sport was doomed in part because of its exclusive nature. In his book “Everyone to Skis! Skiing in Russia and the Rise of Soviet Biathlon,” author William D. Frank writes that because “only military personnel were allowed to participate … therefore the sport did not conform to the International Olympic Committee’s ideal of competitions in which all athletes could take part.“
The skiing-shooting hybrid would disappear entirely from the Olympics until 1960, when modern-day Biathlon was added to the program.
One thread linking these sports, past and present, is the utter dominance of Scandinavia and the European alpine nations in the medal count. Norway leads the overall medal count in Biathlon with 51; it added a gold to that tally this year in Beijing. The next historical medal leaders are Germany, France and Russia, followed by the now-defunct Soviet Union. Biathlon is the only Winter Olympic sport in which the United States has never won a single medal.
In most of the countries that specialize in Biathlon, ski warfare has a long and storied history. Norway, which stretches up to the Arctic circle, is recorded as having ski soldiers conducting reconnaissance as far back as 1200 AD, during the Battle of Oslo in Norway’s Civil War Era. Originally neutral during World War II, Norway would later support the Allies, with a Norwegian ski commando explosives team covering more than 200 miles on their skids in support of 1943’s Operation Gunnerside, a sabotage mission on a German hydroelectric plant located just outside Norwegian borders.
While the Soviets had their own ski forces, they were no match for the ski warfare prowess of the Finns. When the USSR invaded Finland during the Winter War in 1939, Finnish ski forces dealt them a resounding – and shocking – defeat.
“Finnish ski troopers, quick and agile in the forests, wove through the trees, using their white uniforms to remain concealed in the snow. The skiers tossed Molotov cocktails and satchel charges through the exhaust opening into the tanks’ bellows, causing the vehicles to explode from the inside out,” War is Boring writes.
“In one instance, a Finnish ski trooper sledded close enough to pry the treads off one T-28, demobilizing the tank and allowing other Finnish skiers to plunk explosives inside.”
Ultimately, the report notes, Finnish ski troops killed more than 200,000 Soviet soldiers, but took fewer than 50,000 casualties in return.
The United States does not have a long history with Arctic warfare, but the Army and the Marine Corps have in recent years moved to buy more effective cold-weather gear and intensify training exercises in Arctic environments.
The Army hosts a Cold Weather Leaders Course at its Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska, where NCOs spend 11 days learning to maneuver on skis and survive biting sub-zero temperatures.
The Marine Corps kicked off a new rotational deployment to Norway in 2016, and later expanded the size of the rotation and built in more intense winter training exercises, allowing infantry troops to become familiar with the extreme conditions and the survival skills needed to fight in the cold.
Marines also invested millions to acquire NATO skis, replacing aging and ineffective systems in the inventory. The commandant at the time, Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller, made clear that the new gear and the training were designed to prepare troops for a potential future fight with a peer threat like Russia or China – one in which cold-weather warfare skills would be far more relevant than the desert training that U.S. ground troops have specialized in for decades.
“If we are who we say we are, which is the nation’s force in readiness, we have to be ready,” he said.