- Everyone to Skis! Skiing in Russia and the Rise of Soviet Biathlon by William D. Frank
“Vse na lyzhi!” (Everyone to Skis!) is the title of an essay of the “Soviet hero” (52) Toivo Antikainen and which perfectly fits for the title of Frank’s book. According to Frank, biathlon “embodied the Soviet Union’s culture, educational system and historical experience and provided the perfect ideological platform to promote the state’s socialist viewpoint and military might. Biathlon, in short, became much more than simply winning Olympic medals” (3). In other words, it would be useless to write about Soviet biathlon while ignoring politics because politics used sports for its purposes. As a consequence—as Frank states—his book is not just about sports but is a multidimensional analysis of the Soviet state, ideology, and culture, as well as of the people living in Russia.
Frank is not only a scholar of Russian history but also a former nationally ranked biathlon competitor, therefore, the perfect person for writing a book about “the rise of Soviet biathlon.” At the beginning, Frank dips into the early past of skiing before the Revolution of 1917 and calls skiing “an ancient solution to winter’s problems” (14). Furthermore, he lists evidence that the Russian Altai region was the cradle of ancient skiing. As his book is not on skiing in general but on biathlon, he strongly focuses on “the practice of skiing for military purposes” (15). At the first glance the “unlikely combination of cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship” (3) seems to be unusual, but, after reading Frank’s book, no one will regard this combination as being odd anymore.
The Bolshevik Revolution (1917), the Civil War (1918–21) and the Great Patriotic War (1941–45) were not only important for the makeup of the Russian nation but also for the usage of skis by the military. As a result of the ineffectiveness of horses and cavalry in deep snow, ski divisions—poetically also called “riders of the snowy expanse” (49)—took on their role. Frank skillfully relates military history with the development and importance of skiing in a period of wartime in which skiing was more a tool for survival than a sport. Russian ski-shooting races were the role model for the first military patrol races in Europe, which date back to 1902. These races were the “immediate precursor to modern biathlon as an Olympic event” (61). In this context, it has to be pointed out that—although warfare, as well as polar expeditions, is rather a male topic—Frank devotes two small chapters to female skiing as well.
In the Stalinist interwar period, various sports programs aimed to “promote the simultaneous goals of mass participation and mastery” (8) and stood for the importance of sports for the Soviet regime. The outbreak of the Great Patriotic War resulted in a “massive ski mobilization” and in the “transformation of the Soviet skier into an icon of national defense” (8). Frank argues that, consequently, it is no surprise that the battle-hardened Soviet people played a leading role in the advent of biathlon in the late 1950s and also dominated men’s and women’s biathlon throughout the communist area. [End Page 247]
In the second part of the book, Frank covers the period between the First World Biathlon Championships in Saalfelden, Austria, in 1958, and the 15th Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Canada, in 1988, also including a short outlook on the further development up to the eve of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Additionally, Frank portrays the most successful biathletes. He also writes about highlights, such as the triumph at the 1964 Innsbruck Winter Olympics and the 1974 World Biathlon Championships in Minsk, which were the first and “perhaps most significant international competitions ever held in the Soviet Union until the Moscow Summer Olympics of 1980” (237). However, Frank does not exclude negative topics, such as blood doping in the Soviet Union as...