Ever-diligent Bjoerndalen becomes most decorated Winter Olympian
SOCHI -- On a day when Russia’s grip on these Olympics seemed to loosen, a Norwegian biathlete seized the games by the throat. Down by the Black Sea coast the hosts lost an elimination hockey game and immeasurable goodwill when Cossacks put the whip to members of Pussy Riot.
Meanwhile up in the mountains, on a course freshened by snowfall, a farmer’s son became the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time.
The man is 40 years old, his name is Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, and he came to Sochi with a mission to win medals both for his homeland, where the sport of biathlon began, and for his own self-effacing, hyper-fastidious self. He had succeeded spectacularly at that on the first full day of the games, Feb. 8, when he bagged the gold in the 10-kilometer sprint to join his countryman and idol, cross-country skiing icon Bjorn Daehlie, with 12 career medals.
“He’s almost as old as I am,” said Daehlie, 46, two days after Bjoerndalen’s 10 km gold. “I’m sure he will beat my record. It’s a matter of hours.”
In fact, it wound up being a matter of days before medal No. 13 arrived. It seemed as if Bjoerndalen were pulling his punches along with his trigger.
The same day Daehlie made his prediction, Bjoerndalen just missed the podium, placing fourth in the 12.5-kilometer pursuit. A week later, in the 15-kilometer mass start, he tried again but went squirrely at the range, missing six times and finishing 22nd.
Perhaps, on some subconscious level, Bjorndalen didn’t really want to surpass his longtime idol.
So it was fitting that, when Daehlie’s record finally fell, it was in an event Bjoerndalen could share with others -- the mixed-gender relay, in which two women each ski two loops of 6 kilometers and two men complete two rounds of 7.5 kilometers, with prone and standing stops at the shooting range mixed in.
Bjoerndalen’s feat came on a night as windlessly still as the one a week earlier when he won his individual gold. Tora Berger, a gold medalist in Vancouver who, like Bjoerndalen, will retire after this season, delivered a lead of several seconds in the opening leg even though she missed two of her 10 shots. No Norwegian would misfire for the rest of the evening.
First-time Olympian Tiril Eckhoff kept Norway essentially even in leg No. 2. And then it was time for the man they call the King.
As if to acknowledge that Bjoerndalen, after his struggles in two straight individual events, might need a helping hand up, the Norwegian coaches spared him the burden of skiing the anchor leg. They assigned it instead to the Prince, if you will: Emil Hegle Svendsen, the 28-year-old who the night before had won the mass start in a photo finish.
One night 16 years ago, in the midst of the Nagano Olympics, Svendsen’s father had woken him up in the middle of the night to watch Bjoerndalen win his first gold medal. The moment inspired Svendsen to take up the sport.
The Norway coaches needn’t have made Bjoerndalen any accommodations. Besides shooting clean, he covered the 7.5 kilometers faster than anyone, opening up more than 32 seconds on the second-place Czechs. If he would tie and then break Daehlie’s record, there was to be no backing on to the podium. He would mount it with two emphatic golds.
Svendsen essentially celebrated over the last kilometer of the final leg, as fans in the stands, even Russians, cheered wildly. Just past the finish Berger, Eckhoff and Bjoerndalen enveloped Svendsen in a hug. With cross-country skier Marit Bjoergen having won her second gold of these games hours earlier in the team sprint, suddenly an Olympics that has been a struggle for Norwegians on skis seemed to take a turn.
Bjoerndalen has made much of how unworthy he is of being lumped in with Daehlie, whose sportswear brand seems to grace all of the competitors at the Laura Cross-Country and Biathlon Center. Afterward he spoke of the burden of carrying the hopes of three teammates.
“You’re not only going for yourself but for the team and for Norway,” he said. “I was much more nervous than before my other races.”
On the biathlon circuit, where the tics of every athlete are remarked upon and pored over, people are obsessive-compulsive about one another’s OCD. After Bjoerndalen’s record-tying gold medal, a Norwegian reporter teased him about celebrating on a stationery bike. And everyone took note when he skipped two of this season’s World Cup events to hole up in the Italian Tyrol to train at an elevation that matched the Laura venue’s.
“He prepared perfectly,” German biathlon team official Stefan Schwarzbach said. “He risked a lot and won everything.”
But then no one knows Ole better than Ole.
“He’s just a very self-disciplined athlete,” said American Lowell Bailey, whose 8th-place finish in the 20-kilometers was the best Olympic result in U.S. biathlon history. “He’s a model of all those little habits that border on neuroses but help him be the champion he is.
“Endurance sports are tough. You can luge or even alpine ski with a cold. Once in a race, it doesn’t affect you. But in this sport, if you lose one percent of your aerobic capacity, it can amount to 20 or 30 places in a race. At some level we all have to be a little bit of a hypochondriac.”
Bailey keeps a bottle of hand sanitizer with him at all times, but Bjoerndalen is known to take germophobia to another level, even gargling with cognac. But then the flu had kept him from winning any golds in Turin in 2006. “Basically,” team doctor Petter Sorensen said, “he takes care of himself.”
“There are two sides to Ole,” U.S. biathlete Tim Burke said. “There’s the easy-going, more fun-loving Ole. And there’s the competitive Ole. When he’s in training or competition, he’s focused on details. He has that switch where he can go straight to business, and that’s why he’s so good.”
A few critics cluck at Bjoerndalen’s sport, suggesting that its many events inflate the chances to medal. It’s an argument Scott Perras, a biathlete from Canada, summarily swatted into a Caucasus snowbank at the relay’s finish. “The shooting element makes it so difficult to be consistent,” he said. “There are so many things you can’t control.” And he posed the counterfactual: “I mean, how many medals didn’t he win?
“I know for a fact everybody is happy when he gets on a podium. If it can’t be us, let it be him. He’s done it the right way. He’s put in the time. And he’s clean.”
Only three summer Olympians -- swimmer Michael Phelps, with 22, and Soviet gymnasts Larissa Latynina, with 18, and Nikolai Andrianov, with 15 -- have won more medals than Bjoerndalen.
The gold medal was the eighth of his career, which ties another of Daehlie’s Winter Olympic records. He can break it Saturday night if Norway wins the men’s 4 x 7.5-kilometer relay.
After which, perhaps he’ll allow himself not just a swig of that cognac, but a swallow too.