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Bjoerndalen’s victory in the sprint at Sochi 2014 made him, at the age of 40, the oldest-ever individual gold medallist at the Winter Games. He is currently tied with compatriot and cross-country ski legend Bjørn Dæhlie on eight golds, but nobody has matched his overall medal tally of 13. Over the course of two decades since he burst onto the international scene in 1997, the Norwegian has also racked up an incredible 115 World Cup victories (including 95 in individual events) and 45 IBU World Championship medals, including 20 titles.
PyeongChang is the scene of one of his most dominant performances. It was here at the 2009 World Championships that he won four events (sprint, pursuit, individual and relay), as well as placing fourth in the other two, the mass start and the mixed relay.
Those who believed that Bjoerndalen’s two medals at Sochi would be his last were soon proved wrong. Despite his election to the IOC Athletes’ Commission during those Games, he kept his skis strapped firmly on. At the 2016 World Championships in Oslo, he was the best of the host nation’s athletes, claiming four medals, including a gold.
Indeed, the Norwegian’s desire to succeed remained so strong that, shortly after the 2016 Worlds, he opted to relinquish his place on the Athletes’ Commission to focus on his competitive career. In July of the same year he married Belarusian biathlete and three-time Olympic champion Darya Domracheva; their first daughter, Xenia, was born soon after.
At the 2017 World Championships, the Norwegian star crossed the line third in the pursuit, to extend an unbroken medal-winning streak at the Worlds that stretches back 20 years.
In the final races of the 2016/17 season in PyeongChang, the French biathlete Martin Fourcade, who had just equalled Bjoerndalen’s records of six consecutive World Cup overall titles and 12 victories in a year, paid tribute to the great Norwegian. “I’m part of the generation who grew up watching Ole Einar on TV. It means a lot for me to get to his level. He inspired me so much, both then and now!”
“In Korea […] I saw Ole testing his skis for next year’s Games, like a junior! He’s 43, he has almost 100 World Cup victories and he continues to focus on the smallest details,” continued Fourcade. “I’d like to thank him for having inspired me so much and I think that my 12th victory this season is a tribute to this amazing champion. What he’s done is incredible and I’m so proud to join him!”
In October 2017, a Norwegian TV crew visited Bjoerndalen as he and his wife trained in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. In the mountains surrounding the Raubichi biathlon stadium, he had designed a course resembling the Olympic trails of Alpensia, and was to be found there tirelessly training on his roller skis.
“It’s a hard course with a lot of steep climbs, and the shooting range is very windy,” he explained. “That’s why we’re here. It’s ideal for us, it’s right next to our house. It’s perfect. Training here is part of our plan for the Games, but I won’t tell you anything else. We prefer to keep it secret.”
He travels in a van equipped with everything an athlete could need, and featuring a large photo of himself with his rifle and an inscription that reads “Ole Einar Bjoerndalen. Eight-time Olympic champion”.
The Norwegian will celebrate his 44th birthday less than two weeks before PyeongChang 2018, where he will join an exclusive club of athletes who have competed at seven Winter Games. He will also be aiming to repeat his own unique “Grand Slam” at Salt Lake City 2002, where he won all four biathlon events. So strong was Bjoerndalen that year that he also competed in the cross-country skiing, finishing fifth in the 30km skate.
The ultimate competitor, for whom “the Games mean everything”, he will leave nothing to chance when returns to the Olympic stage in PyeongChang. “When you prepare for an event like this you need to think of the worst, of every possible hazard,” he explains. “For Korea we’re considering the weather – snow or no snow? Wind or no wind? Rain, storms, heat: we need to be ready to cope with anything. I like to incorporate the worst into my training sessions so that I’m in my ‘comfort zone’ on D-Day and feel in control of the situation.”
This unwavering attention to detail is one of the traits that sets him apart from his rivals. “I’ve often won thanks to that in the past,” admits the man they call “The Cannibal” due to his insatiable hunger for success. “I try out new skis, I make adjustments to my rifle and I aim to be a new and improved Bjoerndalen. The plan is always the same: to be in the form of my life and perform when I can.”