In a league of his own: A tribute to Ole Einar Bjørndalen
With Norway’s victory in the new mixed relay event in Sochi on 19 February 2014, Ole Einar Bjørndalen took his Olympic medal tally to 13 and in doing so set a new benchmark for the most medals won at the Winter Games. Earlier at Sochi 2014 he had drawn level with the previous record holder, his compatriot and cross country skiing legend Bjørn Daehlie, Now though, he entered in a league of his own, confirming his status as the greatest Winter Olympian of all time.
In fact, the 40-year-old’s tally of 13 medals (eight golds, four silvers and a bronze) has only been bettered by three Summer Olympians: US swimmer Michal Phelps (22) and Soviet gymnasts Larissa Latynina (18) and Nikolai Andrianov (15).
Bjørndalen began Sochi 2014 in blistering fashion, taking gold in the sprint event to equal Daehlie’s medal benchmark, and spark excited speculation that he would set a new outright record before the end of the fortnight.
Daehlie, for one, was left in no doubt, after watching that barnstorming display in thee sprint: “He’s going to destroy my record. Other people didn’t think that this old guy of 40 was capable of that. What h has done is absolutely fantastic. »
However, he then failed to make the podium in the next three biathlon events in Sochi, and talk that a 13th medal might somehow prove beyond him began to gather momentum.
The king of winter sports
Nicknamed “the Cannibal” or simply “the King”, his unquenchable desire for victory has sustained him through five editions of the Winter Games to date, making his debut at Lillehammer 1994, and winning his first medal four years later in Nagano. He has featured on the podium ever since.
An obsessive perfectionist who plans his training down the last detail, Bjørndalen even takes a vacuum cleaner with him wherever he goes to avoid picking up infections.
“He's the biggest athlete of winter sports. I look up to him and he's really an athlete for young athletes to look up to,” says Daehlie. That is some compliment coming from the man who, until Sochi 2014 held the all-time record for the most medals at a Winter Games.
Bjørndalen's medal benchmark is all the more remarkable given that it has been achieved in the tough endurance sport of biathlon, that mixes the physical test of cross country skiing with the precision of shooting.
Biathletes have to carefully control their heart rates to ensure they can shoot accurately in the range. One missed shot results in a penalty loop and a single miss can wreck a hopeful's race.
Born to a family of farmers in the Norwegian town on Drammen, Bjørndalen tried his hand at a variety of sports as a young man but eventually followed his older brother Dag into biathlon.
His Olympic debut came on home snow, at Lillehammer 1994, when he was just 20. His showings did little to hint at what was to come, as he finished 36th in the 20km individual, 28th in the sprint and then 7th as part of the men’s relay team.
It was another four years before he truly shot to fame on the Olympic stage, winning the sprint -- which in biathlon involves almost half an hour of tough skiing -- at Nagano 1998.
In Salt Lake City in 2002 came one of his finest hours on the Olympic stage, as he picked up no less than four gold medals, completing a “grand slam” in the men’s biathlon events: sprint, pursuit, 20km individual and 4x7.5km relay.
Turin 2006 was, by the Norwegian’s own standards, a relatively muted affair as he managed just three medals – none of them gold – to be specific, two silvers in the 20km individual and pursuit, and a bronze in the mass start, which was making its first appearance on the Olympic programme.
Then at Vancouver 2010 his solitary gold in the relay. With the star of his younger compatriot Emil Hegle Svendsen in the ascendance, some suggested that Bjørndalen’s own fortunes and abilities were waning.
How wrong they were!
Life’s too short
Bjørndalen simply got his head down, worked even harder on his shooting, which was seen as a weak point and got faster on his skis.
“Life is too short to give up. You always need to keep going on. I had some bad years with a lot of problems, but my motivation was never an issue. I was able to go on and do my training day after day,” he once explained.
Approaching the status of an immortal in his home nation, in 2008, Bjørndalen saw a statue of himself unveiled in his native Modum.
He is in many ways a sporting enigma. Biathletes are normally tall in stature, yet Bjørndalen stands a relatively diminutive 179cm.
In addition to his consummate marksmanship, he is able to compensate for his lack of height due to his astonishing power-to-weight ratio and brilliantly fluent ski technique.
Add to his Olympic successes, his 93 World Cup victories, the first of which came way back in the 1995-1996 season, 19 world titles, and six large crystal globes, and it is fair to conclude that Bjørndalen has a trophy cabinet that is as packed as any athlete on the planet.
But as much as his unequalled medal count, it is the way in which he has inspired a whole generation of winter athletes in Norway, and beyond, his longevity and determination, and his overall demeanour that have made him stand out as an athlete, a human being and an Olympian.
Highly regarded by his fellow athletes, and not just within the sport of biathlon, on the day after he broke the medal landmark in the mixed relay in Sochi, the 40-year old was also elected to represent his peers on the IOC’s Athlete Commission.
That means that even when he does finally retire from competition – he has hinted that he will consider that option after Sochi 2014 - he is certain to remain a prominent player in the world of Winter sports and in the Olympic movement.