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What is Orienteering?

Orienteering is a running sport involving navigation with a map and compass. The traditional form (sometimes referred to as "Foot Orienteering" or "Foot-O") involves cross-country running, though other forms have evolved. The competition is a timed race in which individual participants use a special purpose map and a magnetic compass to navigate through diverse terrain (often wooded) and visit, in sequence, control points that are indicated on the map. The course of control points is kept secret from the competitors, until the start, when they are provided with a detailed topographic map on which the course is marked. Competitors start at staggered intervals, are individually timed, and are expected to perform all navigation skills on their own. Standings are determined first by successful completion of the course, then by shortest time on course. Rules and principles of the sport are defined by the International Orienteering Federation.

The English name derives from the Swedish word "orientering". The term was first used to describe the sport in 1918 by Major Ernst Killander, then President of the Stockholm Amateur Athletic Association, in publicity for the first large scale competitive meet held in Sweden.


Early days
Orienteering originated in Sweden, as a military exercise, in the late 19th century. The competitive sport form began in Sweden where the first competition was held for officers on 28 May 1893 at the yearly games of the Stockholm garrison. The first civilian competiton took place in Norway on 31 October 1897. It was sponsored by the Tjalve Sports Club and held near Oslo. The course was quite long by modern standards, at 19.5 km, on which only three controls were placed. Peder Fossum won the event in a time of 1 hour, 47 minutes, and 7 seconds. The first large scale orienteering meet was organized in 1918 by Major Ernst Killander of Stockholm, Sweden. Killander was a Scout leader who turned to the sport as an opportunity to interest youth in athletics. The first large scale event was organized south of Stockholm and was attended by 220 athletes. Killander continued to develop the rules and principles of the sport, and today is widely regarded throughout Scandinavia as the "Father of Orienteering".

The sport gained popularity with the development of more reliable compasses in the 1930s. The first international competition between orienteers of Sweden and Norway was held outside Oslo, Norway in 1932. In 1933, the Swedish compass manufacturer Silva Sweden AB introduced a new compass design, the protractor compass. Until the development of thumb compasses, the protractor compass would remain the state of the art in the sport. By 1934, over a quarter million Swedes were actively participating in the sport, and orienteering had spread to Finland, Switzerland, the Soviet Union, and Hungary. The nations of Finland, Norway, and Sweden all established national championships. The Swedish national orienteering society, Svenska Orienteringf?rbundet, the first national orienteering society, was founded in 1936.

Post war years
Following World War II, orienteering spread throughout Europe, Asia, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. The first orienteering event in North America took place in November, 1941, held by Dick Smith at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, USA, organized by Piltti Heiskanen, a visiting teacher from Finland. Bjorn Kjellstrom (d. 1995), a Swedish orienteering champion and co-founder of compass manufacturer Silva Sweden AB, moved to the United States in 1946 to found the U.S. operations of The Silva Company (later Silva, Inc.). Kjellstrom brought his love for orienteering with him, inaugurating Silva Orienteering Services to provide training and company sponsorship for the sport. Norwegian Harald Wibye in 1967 founded the first U.S. orienteering club, the Delaware Valley Orienteering Association, now the largest in the United States. The Canadian Orienteering Federation was also founded in 1967, and the first Canadian national orienteering championship was held at Gatineau Park in Ottawa on August 10, 1968. In 1971 a group of orienteers led by members of the four-year old Quantico Orienteering Club founded the U.S. Orienteering Federation. The only World Championship to be held in North America took place at Harriman State Park, New York, USA in 1993.

Eleven countries sent representatives to an international conference in Sandviken, Sweden in 1949 that aimed to bring more consistent rules and mapping standards to the sport. The Norwegians and Swedes began producing new multi-color maps designed specifically for orienteering, in the 1950s. The first orienteering event in Australia was held in 1955. The International Orienteering Federation (IOF) was established in 1961 and the first world championships were held in 1966. The founding member societies represented the nations of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic, Finland, Hungary, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. By 1969, the IOF would represent 16 countries, including the first two non-European member societies representing Japan and Canada.

Recent years
Sixty-seven different national orienteering federations are member societies of the IOF today. World championships were held biannually from 1961 to 2003, and are now held every year. Jukola relay and Tiomila have both been held since the 1940s. The largest individual orienteering meet, O-Ringen, has been held annually since 1965 and attracts around 15,000 athletes to compete in the Swedish forests. There are new variations of the sport, including ski orienteering, mountain bike orienteering, trail orienteering, canoe orienteering, and radio orienteering that attract diverse communities of athletes. The sport has been dominated by the Nordic nations and Switzerland, but increasingly France, United Kingdom and several Eastern European countries are making their mark. Outside Europe, Australia and New Zealand are the most developed orienteering nations. After the death of Bjorn Kjellstrom and the absence of active corporate sponsorship, U.S. orienteering has remained somewhat stagnant in terms of participation in recent years.

Orienteering and the Olympics

An orienteering course is marked in purple or red on a map using a triangle to indicate the start and a double circle to indicate the finish. Circles are used to show the control points. A staggered start is often used, with competitors starting at one or two-minute intervals. Results are based on the time taken to complete the course, visiting all the controls in the correct order.

High levels of fitness and running speed are required to compete successfully at an elite level. Success is also heavily dependent on choosing the fastest route between controls. While controls are generally the same for the competitors in any particular category, the routes they choose may be very different. Competitors are often required to cross rough, undeveloped terrain where accurate navigation is essential.

Orienteering races usually offer a range of courses with varying physical and technical difficulty to appeal to competitors of differing abilities. Often courses are classified by age class, e.g., M35 for men 35 years of age and older. Sometimes several courses are available for each age class, e.g., W18L: women 18 years and younger long course, W70S: women over 70 short course, M21E: men's open elite etc.

Some countries, such as the United States or the United Kingdom, use color-coded courses at smaller races to define the difficulty of the courses. A "white" course, for instance, might be a short, easy course aimed at beginners whilst a "blue" course would be both technically and physically more demanding.

Recently some local orienteering clubs have begun to organize orienteering courses solely for fitness purposes. These may be permanent courses, and are used for practice and training. Maps of the courses are usually available publicly for a fee. Sometimes these are collected back after completing the course and certainly so if the course is later intended also for major event. All major competitive events should have completely new control points on the course, and the general area of the competition can be closed for competitors during the construction of the course.

Map and control details

Maps are specially created by orienteers and professional mapmakers. They are a larger scale and much more detailed than general-purpose topographic maps, and are typically at scales of 1:15,000 or 1:10,000, with grids predrawn to magnetic north. Map symbols for the 1:15000 scale are standardized by the IOF (International specification for orienteering maps - ISOM), and designed to be readable by any competitor no matter his background or native tongue. 1:15,000 is specified to be the norm and 1:10,000 a special-purpose variation, and map symbols for the 1:10000 scale are required by the specification to be a 150% enlargement of the symbols for the 1:15,000 scale. However in some countries almost all maps used are at 1:10,000 using symbols at the regular size.

Map reading and terrain association are supreme in orienteering navigation, and the compass is normally reduced solely to the role of orienting the map to magnetic north.

Control points are usually placed on distinct features, and clarified on a "control description sheet". They are marked in the terrain by white and orange (or white and red) flags, like that illustrated above. A competitor registers his or her visit by punching a "control card" with a needle punch, or using an electronic chip.

Equipment and clothing

The basic equipment required for orienteering is usually listed as compass, appropriate outdoor clothing and, in some countries, whistle. The whistle is for use in emergency situations. Competitive orienteers usually use specialized equipment, such as a "thumb compass". A clear plastic sleeve is often worn on the forearm to hold control descriptions. Competitors may also use a "punch-card holder" for hands-free orienteering. A modern variation on the punch card is electronic punching. There are two types of electronic punching. The SPORTIdent system uses a small plastic 'e-card' (also called a 'dibber' or 'fingerstick'), which straps to a competitor's finger and is inserted into a special, battery-operated station at the control point. The other is a system known as 'EMIT' which has more of a brick-like shape, but follows the same principle as the 'e-card' with the added backup of a small paper card. This card is pierced by a pin in a specific location at each station. With both, the time at which the control was punched is recorded. Some electronic punching systems have stations that beep and/or flash a light to notify that the punch is OK. For important events there should be some kind of independent backup available in case of equipment failure.

Purpose-made lightweight nylon or lycra suits provide full body cover for racing in areas with undergrowth. Gaiters are also often worn. Lightweight studded (and often cleated) orienteering shoes are commonly used. People sometimes wear visors to keep rain, dust and twigs out of their eyes. GPS and other electronic navigation devices are not normally allowed.

Recognized types of orienteering

The four types of orienteering recognized by the International Orienteering Federation are foot orienteering, mountain bike orienteering, ski orienteering, and trail orienteering.

Mountain bike orienteering
This is orienteering on a mountain bike, abbreviated MTBO or MTB-O. As bikes are usually not permitted to leave the path system, the major focus becomes route choice while navigating at bike speed. Special equipment required is a map holder attached to the handlebar of the bike. Maps are usually smaller scale and less detailed than standard orienteering maps.

Ski orienteering
Another variant includes orienteering on cross-country skis. Standard orienteering maps are used, but with special green overprinting of trails and tracks to indicate their navigability in snow; other symbols indicate whether any roads are snow-covered or clear. Standard cross-country ski equipment is used, along with a map holder attached to the chest.

Trail orienteering
An orienteering form accessible to disabled competitors on equal terms as ablebodied, where the object is accuracy, not time. It involves determining, along an accessible course no competitor may leave, which of various controls in a small area is the one indicated on the map. Another less common form involves determining the position on a map of a control viewed from a set point 30-40 metres away. Maps are usually 1:5,000 scale



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