Off Road

Tank biathlon cancelled again for 2024

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Credit: Donat Sorokin/TASS

Tanks are formidable machines of war, but when there isn’t a conflict going on, why not have some fun? Emphasis on the “when there isn’t a conflict going on” part.

Although the Russian Ministry of Defence has yet to make a formal announcement, reports from domestic media indicate the International Army Games will not take place in 2024. It is the second year in a row that the multi-sport Games are off; the MoD originally announced in 2023 that it would become a biennial recurrence starting the next year. Held since 2015, the Games pits armies from around the world in events like artillery fire competitions and military intelligence. Most participating nations are those friendly with Russia, though Western countries like the United States have been invited as observers.

The tank biathlon has long been the most popular part of the Games, attracting military enthusiasts and casuals alike for the rather absurd premise of taking tanks and running them through an obstacle course like some twisted form of autocross. At the latest biathlon in August 2022, the format entailed completing three laps around a five-kilometre area, firing at targets with anti-aircraft and coaxial machine guns and the main tank gun. The crew with the fastest time and fewest errors would win.

Of course, subpar militaries trying these in hunkering machines means things can get out of hand. The 2022 edition saw incidents that included one of Armenia‘s teams running over every track marker, Sudan getting stuck in a trap and damaging their tank’s side skirt, and Iran and Zimbabwe crashing together. Venezuela had an especially disastrous showing in one heat race in which they missed every shot and went off course to finish with a time nearly twice as slow as heat winner Uzbekistan. Russia won in the top division ahead of Belarus and China, while Myanmar topped the second division ahead of Syria and Tajikistan; a Russian crew has won the biathlon every year since the event’s creation in 2013.

However, with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine now in its third year, Russia has had to send more of their tanks and crews to the frontlines, quickly reducing their stockpile that would otherwise be used for the biathlon. Tank biathlon champions Alexey Bakulov (2019), Bato Basanov (2021), and Maxim Zharkoy (2021) were killed in action in Ukraine.

“Russia has likely called-off the Games to avoid criticism of the event as a trivial activity in wartime, diverting military effort away from the war in Ukraine, and to avoid likely reduced participation from other countries,” surmised a report from the United Kingdom’s Defence Intelligence. “Particularly known for the Tank Biathlon event, there is also a realistic possibility that, due to losses in Ukraine, the Russian MOD is concerned a shortage of skilled military personnel and equipment would risk Russia’s consistent domination of the competition.”

Even with the biathlon on the backburner, tank connoisseurs need not fret as the United States has its own tank competition in the form of the Sullivan Cup, held every other year at Fort Moore in Georgia. The 2024 Cup took place in early May with American units competing alongside Canadian, German, Dutch, and Polish crews in M1 Abrams and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. During the Cold War, NATO members participated in the Canadian Army Trophy from 1963 to 1991, while the United States and Germany co-organised the Strong Europe Tank Challenge from 2016 to 2018.

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Justin is not an off-road racer, but he writes about it for The Checkered Flag.
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