Biathlon is a winter sport combining cross-country skiing and shooting. It has been included in the Winter Olympics since 190 for men and 1992 for women. I have chosen my top five male athletes and top three women in the sport. The number of events competed in at the various major championships has expanded dramatically over the years, increasing from just one when the sport was introduced to four different distances currently for individual events. This makes comparisons of the number of medals won rather misleading and I have born this in mind when making my choices.
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- Ole Einar Bjørndalen (Norway) – a clear choice as the greatest in history as he has won more Winter Olympic medals than any other athlete at any sport (13), more world championship medals than any biathlete (45 with 20 golds) and by a distance has the most individual wins in the biathlon world cup with 94. He has also won more overall biathlon World Cup titles, six, than any other man except Fourcade, between 1998 and 2007. He followed an outstanding junior career by starting his senior career in 1993. He made his first Olympic appearance in 1994 and won the first of his record eight golds in 1998. In 2002 he won all four golds open to him, another unique feat by a biathlete. He added golds in 2010 and 2014.
- Martin Fourcade – the only man who comes close to Ole Einar Bjørndalen is Fourcade, the current dominant figure in biathlon. If he continues his medal winning level he may overhaul the brilliant Norwegian. He shares the record of overall world cup titles with Bjørndalen but has the distinction of winning six in a row, from 2012 to 2017. He has the second highest number of world cup individual race wins (63). In world championships he has 25 medals and 11 golds. At the Olympics he has two golds and four medals. In the world cup he has won all five titles available in a season three times.
After these two it is close between several biathletes for the minor places and arguments can be made for all of them. I have tried to factor in the lack of medal opportunities for early biathletes by looking at the number of years they were dominant for rather than the total medals.
3. Alexander Tikhonov (USSR) – winner of eleven world championship titles between 1969 and 1977. Five of those came in individual events with the latter two in the sprint event. He won four Olympic golds between 1968 and 1980, all of these coming in relays. The world cup was only established at the end of his career so he only won two races in that.
4. Vladimir Melanin (USSR) – the outstanding biathlete in the early days of the sport as an international event. He was the world champion in 1959, 1962 and 1963 at 20km and was Olympic champion in 1964. This was at a time when this was the only individual event. He also won relay gold medals in the three world championships.
5. Raphaël Poirée (France) – the winner of 44 World Cup races and 8 world championship gold medals between 1995 and 2007. All but one of his world titles were in individual events with four of them at the mass start event. He won 14 world cup season titles including four overall crowns but was another to miss out on Olympic gold, although winning three medals.
Others in my top ten in no particular order were Frank-Peter Roetsch, Frank Ullrich, Eirik Kvalfoss, Mark Kirchner and Sven Fischer . These were all not far away from fifth place and could be seen by some as worthy of a top five place.
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- Magdalena Forsberg (Sweden) – by a reasonable margin the greatest female biathlete ever. She is the only woman ever to win six overall titles at the world cup, which she did every year from 1997 to 2002. She holds the record for most individual race victories in world cups with 42 and won 17 world cup discipline titles. At world championships she has twelve medals with six golds, all of these coming in individual events. The only disappointments in her career were at the Olympics where she only won two bronze medals.
- Magdalena Neuner (Germany) – the most successful woman in the history of the world biathlon championships with 17 medals (12 golds) and two Olympic titles between 2007 and 2012. Six of her world titles were in relay events leaving six world and two Olympic individual golds. She won three overall world cup titles and 34 world cup races, putting her second to Forsberg in both lists.
- Kati Wilhelm (Germany) – a close decision for who to put third but I just went for Wilhelm. She had a better championship record winning five world championship and three Olympic golds between 2001 and 2009. Five of these were individual golds. In the world cup she won one overall title and 21 races.