Orienteering is a sport that combines both a physical and a mental element. The basic idea in orienteering is to proceed from course start to finish by visiting a number of control points in a predetermined order, with the help of map and compass. In an orienteering race, athletes must run at speed through the terrain, with the winner taking the fastest elapsed time to complete the course - as with downhill skiing, in most races runners each start at a different time, rather than all together. What is unique to orienteering is that an orienteer must navigate alone and make quick decisions, often while moving at high speed.
Orienteering is a low-cost sport suitable for both genders and all ages. Courses of varying lengths are offered to match age and aptitudes.
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Orienteering began as a forest sport, but nowadays features a variety of different formats, either staying close to the sport's roots with “classic” distance racing over 60 minutes or more in forests or on mountain moorlands, to the more recently developed sprint, and urban or park formats. The orange and white flag that is the emblem of the sport, and which marks every control point, is used by all formats. With the use of electronic timing at each control point, and GPS tracking, orienteering has in the last ten years become a sport much more visible to audiences, with real time broadcasting on TV and the internet.
The International Orienteering Federation was recognised by the International Olympic Committee in 1977, and now has over 80 nations affiliated. There are four official disciplines: foot, mountain bike, ski and trail orienteering. The first foot and ski orienteering competitions were held in Scandinavia as early as the 1890s. Mountain bike orienteering, and “trail” orienteering (open to the physically handicapped), are formats that have evolved during the last two decades.
In many countries, orienteering has marketed itself, with good cause, as a true “Sport for All”. Elite international competitors are distance runners of the highest levels of strength and fitness, and some of the most intense competition is between wiry veterans with thirty years or more of experience. But orienteering is open to anyone who is physically active - the sport also attracts both young children just old enough to read a map, and men and women of middle age or older who simply wish to move slowly through unspoilt woodland while enjoying the intellectual challenge of route-finding. This “grass-roots” appeal to such a broad audience has underpinned the successful development of the sport in many countries.
An orienteering competition – usually referred to as an “event” – will normally offer classes for competition divided by age, but all sharing the same organisation, map and infrastructure. Children begin to run at age 10 or under and step up a class every two years, and older competitors move to progressively shorter courses every five years through to 70 plus. For many, orienteering is a sport for life - there are cases where three generations of the same family have taken part in a single orienteering event.
Using the map is at the heart of any orienteering activity. Originally, government-made maps were used, but since the 1960’s almost all competitive orienteering has used maps made specially for orienteering. Many orienteering maps are now produced not just for formal orienteering races, but also for informal training and for teaching purposes. In some countries, many schools will have a orienteering map made of their school grounds, or local park or sports fields, because an accurate, easy to handle, large scale map is best suited for teaching the basic skills of navigation.