SOCHI -- I will always remember where I was when the great Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen tied the Winter Olympic medals record. I was at another event, Googling his name.
Bjoerndalen has now won 12 medals, and he probably isn’t done yet. He can win another one Monday night, and you should not bet against him. Or on him. Really, I advise against betting on the biathlon at all.
Bjoerndalen is poised to break the medals record of his countryman Bjorn Daehlie, and that must stick in Daehlie’s considerable craw, no matter what Daehlie says publicly. I mean, come ON. You know Bjorn Daehlie is thinking, “OK, fine, records are made to be broken, we all get that. But a Norwegian named BJOERNDALEN? I’m a Norwegian named Bjorn Daehlie! What are the chances?”
Bad enough that Daehlie spent so much of his life cross-country skiing, only to discover, upon retirement, that skiing is much easier if you start on top of a hill. It is downright unfair that he will lose his record to a Norwegian who stole his name. I fear Daehlie will spend too many hours scribbling “WRONG ADDRESS!!!!!” on gifts intended for Bjoerndalen, and attending therapy sessions with both Major League shortstops named Alex Gonzalez.
Adding insult to insult, Daehlie’s record will get broken by a guy who ALSO cross-country skis but does so while he is armed. The biathlon, of course, is a combination of cross-country skiing and shooting. It's ironic Bjoerndalen will break the record here, since the Sochi mayor insists his town does not have any biathletes, though it’s possible he misunderstood the question.
Yes, it is easy to mock Bjoerndalen’s achievement from our lofty perch in America, where we sneer at any shooter who does not have a getaway car. But Americans revere Jack Nicklaus for his ability to use a stick to whack a ball into a cup, idolize Greg Maddux for his ability to throw a ball to a specific spot, and have made Jimmie Johnson a millionaire, many times over, for driving around in circles.
We also celebrate men who beat up other men in a variety of ways, and sometimes we like to wear the same shirts they wear when they beat up those other men. So perhaps we should leave the condescension in the garage and just embrace Ole Einar Bjoerndalen for the lovable old coot that he may or may not be.
Journalists are calling Bjoerndalen the most decorated Winter Olympian of all-time, though anybody who says that has not seen Johnny Weir out on the town. He does have the most medals, though. Does this make Bjoerndalen the greatest Winter Olympian of all-time? That is a matter for debate.
The medal count itself is somewhat misleading, since some sports lend themselves to mass medal accumulation and others do not. Look at the Summer Olympics. Michael Phelps wins separate gold medals for swimming on his stomach and on his back, and can win more for doing the same things with teammates. Meanwhile, LeBron James can only win one gold every four years. Imagine how many medals James would have won if the International Olympic Committee held separate events for dunking, passing, dribbling and claiming you got fouled.
James, of course, is immensely popular in the United States for the many ways in which he can advance a ball into a hoop, though we did have that stretch where we were all mad at him for trying to advance a ball into a hoop in a different city. So I wanted to find out: Is Bjoerndalen just as popular in Norway? And if so, why?
With that journalistic goal weighing on my mind, I walked to the medals ceremony for the men’s 10-kilometer sprint.
More than an hour before the ceremony, I found a man and a woman with Norwegian flags all over their clothes. He was waving a big flag with pictures of Bjoerndalen and the Norwegian flag on it, along with Bjoerndalen’s signature and the words GREAT BJOERNDALEN. She was wearing a winter hat with handmade skis hanging over her ears. The skis had Norwegian flags on them.
So I asked her: How popular is Ole Einar Bjoerndalen in Norway?
She said, and this is a direct quote: “I don’t know. We’re from Russia.”
I suppose her name, Evgeniya Petrichenko, should have tipped me off.
Clearly, this was a job for a better reporter, and I so found one. Erlend Nesje works for Aftenposten, a Norwegian newspaper. He explained to me that biathlon is popular in Norway, but not as popular as cross-country skiing. This is probably because Norwegians love going cross-country skiing but generally don’t take guns with them. Bjoerndalen lives in Austria, where biathlon is more popular.
Still, Nesje said that in Norway, Bjoerndalen has a reputation for “Dedication, dedication, dedication, dedication.” His complete devotion to his sport has earned him a legion of admirers.
I thought about it. Bjoerndalen does not play his country’s most popular sport, but people there have complete respect for his professionalism. I told Nesje that Bjoerndalen is a lot like Derek Jeter. He gave me a blank stare.