Why you should care

Because this European favorite combines fitness, colorful fandom, high-pressure drama and guns. One of these days, the U.S. will catch on.

Two cross-country skiers haul themselves over a hill. They’ve traveled more than 6 miles to reach this point, shedding a couple of pints of sweat in the cold. They breathe deeply as they glide in front of the stadium seating, where thousands of fans wave flags and cheer.

They aim. They take one more breath before steadying the rifles. A shot rings out …

The skiers’ faces show a taut display of exhaustion as they pull rifles from their backs and look at small banners to gauge the wind. The crowd falls silent. Olympic medals rest on what each skier can do with these next five pulls of the trigger.

They aim. They take one more breath before steadying the rifles. A shot rings out …

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 10: Ondrej Moravec of Czech Republic practises in the Men's 12.5 km Pursuit during day three of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Laura Cross-country Ski & Biathlon Center on February 10, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic practices in the men’s 12.5 km pursuit at the Sochi Games.

Source Harry How/Getty

At home, you’re gathering your breath as well. You’ve learned to follow the little graphics showing how many shots have been made or missed, and you’re leaning into your laptop to see whether the French guy you just met or the wily old Norwegian will take the gold. You’re glad you heeded the advice of a fellow Olympics viewer who told you to skip whatever’s on TV at the moment and seek out one of the hidden gems of the Games online.

Welcome to biathlon.

The sport combining cross-country skiing and shooting is quite popular in Europe, commanding big-money TV deals. In the United States, the only regular option for viewing is through the International Biathlon Union’s site, which supplies a clean feed with no commentary.

And even with NBC devoting up to five channels to Sochi 2014 coverage, you’re not likely to stumble into biathlon until the women’s relay on Feb. 21.

That’s a pity, because the best way to get hooked on biathlon isn’t through a simple 30-second highlight reel. It’s not an action sport. It’s a drama that plays out through grueling laps around a cross-country skiing course and the battle to steady one’s hands to knock down five targets.

Each biathlon event has a slightly different format; the Sochi site explains them all. The individual and sprint races are time trials, with athletes taking off one at a time and trying to post a fast time. The other events (pursuit, relay, mass start) are simpler to follow — first across the line wins, and it can go down to the wire.

But in each event, the object is the same. Ski fast, and then try to hold a rifle steady enough to knock down five targets. Each miss incurs a penalty of added time or added distance.

It’s great TV drama. Broadcasters long ago figured out visual cues to help even a newbie viewer determine how the targets are falling. Close-ups on the skiers can show viewers how much a skier is struggling.

But the live audience adds a lot of color. It’s not a trash-talking crowd, but it has the festive feel of a college football or basketball game. As one Swiss fan put it during the 2010 Olympics, “The German people make very party.”

To make very party at home in the U.S., you’ll need to get online in the midmorning hours. Party on, Ole Einar. Party on, Tim.

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