On 19 February 2014 in Sochi, Ole Einar Bjørndalen was the artisan of Norway’s victory in the first ever Olympic biathlon mixed relay. Having already won the sprint ten days earlier, he took his eighth Olympic title and thirteenth medal, making him one of the greatest Olympic winter athletes of all time.
For Ole Einar Bjørndalen, born in Drammen in southern Norway on 25 January 1974, Sochi was his sixth Olympic Games, and he’d just turned 40. He already had eleven Olympic medals to his name, six of them gold, having completed a grand slam in Salt Lake City in 2002 (four events on the programme and four gold medals). He had also racked up a record 93 World Cup victories, but hadn’t won an event since 2012. At the World Championships, his last individual wins dated back to 2009, when he won the sprint, the pursuit and the individual event.
“How many medals in Sochi?"
As the sprint event that opened the biathlon competition began in the Laura stadium on 8 February 2014, few people had any expectations of Bjørndalen. And yet, the Norwegian “Cannibal”, who had raised the profile of his sport over the course of a decade through his rivalry with Raphaël Poirée of France, was about to turn a few heads. He was far from being the fastest on the first lap, but he completed the first prone shooting bout without missing a shot, then began to pick up speed. During the second standing shooting section he missed a target and had to complete a penalty loop. But Bjørndalen still had some strength in reserve, and he saved the best for last. His final kilometre was supersonic. Wearing bib number 24, he crossed the finish line in 24:33.5, beating Dominik Landertinger of Austria, who had scored 10 out of 10 for his shooting, by 1.3 seconds. Jaroslav Soukup of the Czech Republic, who also hadn’t missed a shot, picked up the bronze medal 5 seconds later. Martin Fourcade, with one miss, came in sixth 12 seconds behind. It was an epic achievement.
“How many medals in Sochi?” “I’m happy with this one, that’s enough,” said the man who had equalled the achievement of fellow Norwegian Bjørn Daehlie, with 12 Olympic Winter Games podium places. But at that point in the Black Sea Games, Ole Einar Bjørndalen had seven gold medals, whereas Daehlie had won eight. In the pursuit, which was won by Martin Fourcade, he missed three targets and finished in fourth position, one second from a podium place. In the individual, he missed four targets and came 34th, almost four minutes behind Martin Fourcade, who won once again. In the mass start, which ended with Emil Hegle Svendsen winning by the tip of his skis against Fourcade, he missed six targets and finished in 22nd position.
The orchestrator of one final team medal
19 February was the date of a completely new event on the programme: the mixed relay. Tora Berger made a strong start, despite two shooting errors, putting Norway in the lead from the outset. Tiril Eckhoff took over and completed a faultless lap, but she was overtaken by Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic, who handed off to Jaroslav Soukup a scant second ahead. Ole Einar Bjørndalen set off as his team’s third racer. At that point, he had racked up almost as many world podium places (39) as he had birthdays (40), but he was by no means finished. In fact, he would be the orchestrator of Norway’s success.
Bjørndalen hit every shooting target, while behind him Soukup made two errors, and Dominik Windisch of Italy made four. By this time, the other teams were out of the running. His skis flew across the snow, and with the last of his strength Bjørndalen left his competitors in the dust. Svendsen started the fourth leg of the relay with a huge 43-second lead. Twenty-four hours after his mass start win, all Svendsen had to do was play it safe, savour the victory and bring home a win for Norway, which beat the Czech Republic (Veronika Vitkova, Gabriela Soukalova, Jaroslav Soukup, Ondrej Moravec) by 32.6 seconds and Italy (Dorothea Wierer, Karin Oberhoffer, Dominik Windisch, Lukas Hofer) by 58.2 seconds. Germany took fourth place, over 40 seconds later.
With this gold medal, his second in Sochi after the sprint victory, Ole Einar Bjørndalen took his total medal haul to thirteen: two in Nagano 1998 (1 gold, 2 silver), four golds in Salt Lake City in 2002, three in Turin in 2006 (2 silver, 1 bronze), two in Vancouver in 2010 (1 gold, 1 silver) and two gold in Sochi 2014. He had surpassed the achievement of Bjørn Daehlie, having equalled his gold medal haul, and became the most decorated male Olympic winter athlete since 1924.
“It’s cool, it means a lot to me. I’m truly grateful for everything. Above all, I’m very happy for my team,” said King Ole. “This evening everyone did their best. As for myself, to come back after years of poor results, and to be in this kind of shape, it’s really great. My shooting was really good, I was more focused than yesterday in the mass start. Today, things were back on track. I was really nervous before the race, because you’re not just racing for yourself, you’re racing for the others, for the team. I wasn’t expecting this, it’s a dream.”
“Our performance is unique,” he continued. “It was really a great race. We had some issues, but all the major teams had them. I’m having an amazing experience, and the Games aren’t over yet. It’s hard to realise what’s happening, it will probably sink in later. Now, my overriding feeling is tiredness. But of course there is happiness too. In the first few seconds, your first thought is that you’ve done a good race, then the pride comes afterwards.”
En route for the Beijing 2022 Games with China
There was one competition left in Sochi: the men’s relay. Racing in third position, Bjørndalen kept his team in front, but Svendsen came to grief in the shooting, and Norway finished in fourth place. But it didn’t matter. With two new Olympic titles in Sochi, the quadragenarian biathlete had already achieved Olympic success. As his teammate Tiril Eckhoff said: “He’s the king of biathlon. There’s nothing more to say.”
After Sochi, “OEB” wanted to take part in PyeongChang 2018, which is why he stood down from the IOC Athletes’ Commission, to which he was elected by his peers in Russia. He won a further six World Championship medals (2015, 2016, 2017), bringing his record to 45 podiums, including 20 titles. He won one final World Cup victory, the individual event in Östersund, on 2 December 2015, bringing his total to an incredible 95 wins (136 including relays) and 250 podiums, a record that is likely to stand for some time. However, at the age of 44, he failed to qualify for what would have been his seventh Olympic Games, and on 3 April 2018 he announced his retirement from competition. Today, alongside his wife, the triple Olympic champion Darya Domracheva, he remains immersed in the world of biathlon, and is now head coach for the Chinese team as they prepare for the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games.