Jan 30 (Reuters) - Factbox on biathlon ahead of the Feb 7-23 Sochi Winter Olympics
There will be 11 events at the Sochi Olympics, five for the men, five for the women and a mixed relay.
The oldest biathlon event is the individual, which for a number of years was the only discipline in the sport. The men race 20km over five loops of a 4km course and the women 15km round a shorter, 3km course. The competitors start at intervals of 30 seconds and have four shoots, the first and third in the prone position and the second and fourth standing. For every missed shot, a minute is added to the competitors' time.
The opening event at Sochi will be the men's and women's sprint, which is a shortened version of the individual race. The men ski 10km and the women 5km. There are two shoots for each competitor, one prone and one standing, and for every missed shot, they have to ski a penalty lap of 150 metres.
In the pursuit, the biathletes' starting order is based on their time differences in the sprint. The men race a distance of 12.5km and the women 10km. There are four shoots, the first two prone and the final two standing. For every missed shot, the competitors ski a penalty loop of 150 metres.
The mass start, one of the newest biathlon events, made its Olympic debut in 2006. The top 30 biathletes start at the same time, with the men covering 15km and the women 12.5km. There are four shoots, the first and second prone and the third and fourth standing. For every missed shot, the competitors ski a penalty loop of 150 metres.
The relay consists of four biathletes per country, with each member in the men's event skiing a lap of 7.5km and the women 6km. Lead racers of all the teams start simultaneously. Each athlete skis three loops, interspersed with two bouts of shooting, prone then standing, at five targets. Any athlete missing a target may use up to three spare rounds which must be loaded individually, by hand, after the five rounds have been shot. If there are still misses after eight rounds, the team member must then ski a 150 metre penalty loop for each missed target. The team whose final skier is first across the finish line wins, subject to penalties for rule violations or time adjustments.
The mixed relay will be making its Olympic debut in Sochi, with each country having two men and two women in their team. The women race a distance of 6km, the men 7.5km. Each competitor shoots twice, prone and standing. They have eight shots without incurring any penalties. If the athlete runs out of bullets, a penalty lap of 150 metres must be skied for every missed shot.
Biathlon was initially a form of hunting by inhabitants of Northern Europe, who skied while carrying a rifle. The sport made its first appearance at the Chamonix Games in 1924 known at the time as "Military Patrol".
Biathlon began to gain in popularity during the 1960s after being introduced onto the winter sporting calendars of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The sport was re-introduced onto the Olympic calendar as biathlon for the Squaw Valley Games in 1960. Women were first allowed to compete in the Olympics at the 1992 Albertville Games.
Ole Einar Bjorndalen is the most successful athlete in the history of biathlon, winning six Olympic gold medals and 19 world championship titles. After the Sochi Games, the 40 year-old plans to retire.
The biathlon events will take place from Feb. 8 to 22 at the "Laura" complex, which is used for cross country skiing and biathlon. It is located at the Krasnaya Polyana resort, which is around 90km from the centre of Sochi. The complex opened in December 2011 and a leg of the cross country skiing World Cup was held there in January 2013.
The "Laura" complex consists of two separate stadiums, each with their own separate start and finish. There are two separate tracks for cross country skiing and biathlon, with the latter having a separate shooting zone and warm-up zones. The stands can hold 7,500 spectators, while there are two cable car stations, which can transport 6,000 spectators every hour.
There are a number of top contenders for the men's events, though the main favourite is France's Martin Fourcade. The 25-year-old has been in excellent form and could win all four individual disciplines.
Emil Hegle Svendsen is another of the favourites, with the Norwegian having won two Olympic gold medals in Vancouver in 2010, while he claimed four titles at the last world championships at Nove Mesto. His team mate Bjorndalen will be competing in his final Olympics in Sochi, looking to add to the six golds he has won at pervious games.
Tora Berger is seen as favourite in the women's events. The 32-year-old Norwegian is in the best form of her life and won four golds at the 2013 world championships. Daria Domracheva from Belarus and Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic are likely to be Berger's biggest challengers. (Compiled by Dmitriy Rogovitskiy; editing by Rex Gowar)