Biathlon links two things that don’t often go together, at least in the United States: cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. It’s the only Winter Olympic sport in which the U.S. has never medaled.
The sport “combines the power and aggression of cross-country skiing with the precision and calm of marksmanship,” the Olympics website says, adding that biathlon “has its roots in survival skills practised in the snow-covered forests of Scandinavia, where people hunted on skis with rifles slung over their shoulders.”
Its practitioners must power across the course, heaving themselves up and down inclines — then stop, calm their breathing, and fire rifles at a target 50 meters (164 feet) away.
For biathletes, the fact that their sport involves firearms isn’t always comfortable. And following last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., some members of the U.S. team are adding their voices to the rising chorus calling for stricter gun control.
On Tuesday night, after he finished competing, American biathlete Lowell Bailey spoke out about the gun he uses to compete — and the type of gun that was used to kill 17 people in Parkland.
“We’re a sport that uses a .22-caliber rifle,” Bailey said, according to Yahoo Sports. “A .22-caliber rifle that shoots a single round is a much different thing than an AR-15. In my opinion, there’s just no reason for assault rifles to be in the hands of ordinary citizens.”
The Florida shooter used a semi-automatic rifle similar to an AR-15.
“I support an assault weapons ban,” Bailey said, according to The Washington Post. “I really do. Our country needs to wake up. Our country needs to change. There’s just no excuse. I compete against all of these other World Cup nations — Germany, Norway. How good are they on the range? They’re great at rifle marksmanship. Do you know how strict their gun control laws are? It’s a travesty America hasn’t changed and continues to go down this path. It just makes me want to cry.”
His teammate Susan Dunklee has previously described the tension between needing to use a gun for biathlon and hating gun violence.
“Watching the news after the Las Vegas shooting, I just had this disgust about anything gun-related,” Dunklee told NPR’s Melissa Block. “It really took away the joy that I enjoy doing my sport, just thinking about that and the whole gun culture. Most of the time, I kind of forget that my sport is a gun sport. It’s just biathlon: To me it’s something totally different.”
“I look at what’s happening with all these mass shootings and it’s so sad, and it’s not OK,” she added. “It almost makes me want to just put the rifle down and never touch it again. Sometimes.”
The biathletes experience for themselves how gun control laws vary from country to country. In Pyeongchang, for example, their rifles are stored in lockers. The athletes must check them out each time they practice.
“They’re under lock and key,” Dunklee told Yahoo Sports. “We each have our own key. We ski around with them, then we bring them right back. Very controlled. Russia does that too.”
“It would be like if you’re a runner and someone locked up your running shoes,” teammate Joanne Firesteel Reid told Yahoo.
Biathletes from other countries are similarly skeptical of the permissiveness of America’s gun laws.
“In Norway, it’s really strict to buy weapons,” Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff told USA Today. “I think that’s the main thing in America. Everyone can buy a gun, and that’s totally wrong, I think.”
U.S. biathlete Tim Burke said that he was devastated when he read what had happened in Parkland. “What happened back home really put things in perspective,” he told USA Today. “I’m an avid hunter. But if locking up all of my sport rifles and hunting rifles meant saving one life, I would do it.”