LES SAISIES, France -- On a postcard-perfect winter's day, with snowflakes the size of golf balls falling from the lumpy gray sky, with five giant plastic rings spread across an open field, with a flame burning brightly on the top of a hill, 5,000 fans scattered along snowbanks and watched history unfold at the Winter Olympics.
They were there to see women with guns.
For the first time in the history of the Olympics, women were exercising their right to bear arms in the biathlon, a military-style event that combines cross country skiing with target shooting.
Previously, this was the ultimate macho Olympic sport, a for-men-only exercise dominated by guys named Lars and Igor from countries with permafrost and armies that ski.
But, yesterday, 69 Lycra-dressed pioneers from 20 countries packed .22-caliber rifles and were set loose on a course that weaved through the countryside 20 miles north of Albertville.
The first woman to start the 7.5-kilometer race at precisely 2:01 p.m. was Iveta Knizkova of Karovy Vary, Czechoslovakia. The final racer was Joan Smith of Honeoye Falls, N.Y., who crossed the finish line at 3:36 p.m.
"I always hit the ground," said Smith, who finished 21st to lead the Americans. "You've just got to collapse. Everyone is always taking pictures. They always have my butt in the air."
Anfissa Restzova of the Unified Team won the gold, and her teammate, Elena Belova, took the bronze. The silver went to Germany's Antje Misersky.
"It was miserable out there," said Mary Ostergren of Norwich, Vt., the first American starter and the 25th-place finisher. "This is the day that is a biathlon nightmare."
Snow fell in clumps, creating ski-and-shoot torture. Skis slipped on the new powder. Visors fogged. Guns twitched in the slight breeze, as the competitors took five shots in the prone position and five more standing.
Still, this was a celebration, the culmination of eight years of lobbying to get women's biathlon into the Games.
"It's fabulous," said Anita DeFrantz, the U.S. representative to the International Olympic Committee. "Finally, women have a chance to do in the Olympic Games what they've been doing at the world championship level for years."
The biathlon, which means two tests, was a demonstration event at the 1924 Olympics in Chamonix, France, but was dropped after the 1948 Games because of an anti-military atmosphere. Times changed, and the sport was reintroduced to the Olympics in 1960.
Women's biathlon took shape in the 1970s, but was relegated to World Cup status. The reason, simply put, was the European nations weren't interested in providing another Olympic ski event for women.
"The women are world class," said Nancy Bell, an unemployed teacher from Stowe, Vt. "We ski as well as the men. And some of us can even shoot as well as the men."
Most competitors start out in cross country and then switch to biathlon. The toughest part of the transition is learning to control the senses, as the skiers have to go from a sprint to a stop in a heartbeat.
Some like the competition. Some like firing the rifles.
And then there's Jane Isakson of Pigeon Lake, Alberta, who said she immediately was attracted to the biathlon after reading her hometown newspaper.
"I saw a picture of a men's biathlete in a tight ski suit," said Isakson, who was 50th. "I told my mother, 'This is the sport for me.' When I went to college, I signed up at the biathlete table. I had a boyfriend within a week."
But don't get the idea that biathlon is a computer dating service in the woods. This is a serious sport, requiring calm nerves, endurance and year-round training. But nobody will ever grow rich on some pro circuit in America.
Bell survives on a $125-a-weekend paycheck from the Vermont National Guard, in which she is a specialist, and a $2,500 yearly stipend from the U.S. Biathlon Federation.
"I'm in this for the money," she said, a smile breaking across her face. "God, I don't know. You ask yourself out there all the time, 'Why am I doing this?' I need a job."
Bell is drawing pay from the National Guard this week.
"They gave me orders," she said. "Win."
She didn't. Still, she was delighted to take part in an inaugural event.
"It was terribly exciting," she said. "Normally, there are two people at the races in America -- my parents. Here, look at the crowd."
The fans dotted the hills. Norwegian flags waved in the breeze. Cowbells clanged.
"It won't be so strange next time," said Joan Guetschow of Minnetonka, Minn., who finished 64th. "I've had so many people ask me, 'What does it feel like to be a woman and shoot?' I just think it's a sport. It doesn't seem unusual."