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When he lines up for his seventh Winter Games at PyeongChang 2018, Norwegian biathlon legend Ole Einar Bjoerndalen will aim to add to his tally of 13 Olympic medals, eight of them golds, and cement his standing as the most decorated Winter Olympian of them all.
Ole Einar Bjoerndalen made his Olympic debut on home snow at Lillehammer 1994 at the age of 20. He finished 36th in the 20km individual pursuit and 28th in the sprint, while helping the host quartet finish seventh in the men’s relay. The experience stood him in good stead. Four years later in Nagano, he claimed his first Olympic title in the sprint, and also featured in the Norwegian four that took relay silver.
At Salt Lake City 2002, by now 28 and in his prime, Bjoerndalen’s medal-winning exploits gained momentum, as he achieved a remarkable clean sweep of the biathlon golds, winning the sprint, the pursuit, the 20km individual and the 4x7.5km relay. By the time he arrived in Turin for the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, he was already established at the top of his sport. However, there were no more gold medals this time. Instead he had to settle for silvers in the 20km individual and pursuit events, and a bronze in the new mass-start event.
In Whistler, at Vancouver 2010, the Norwegian took his Olympic medal tally to 11 as he won silver in the 20km individual before winning gold alongside Halvard Hannevold, Tarjei Bø and Emil Hegle Svendsen in the men’s relay.
Bjoerndalen arrived at Sochi 2014 off the back of a barren spell on the World Cup and world championship circuit but with the scent of Olympic immortality in his nostrils. After securing a majestic victory in the sprint to take his Olympic medal tally to 12 and move level with compatriot Bjorn Daehlie at the top of the all-time rankings, he missed out on the podium in the pursuit and the 20km individual, and was then uncharacteristically wayward with his shooting in the mass start.
It seemed perhaps as if destiny was going to deny him further honours. However, Bjoerndalen finally rediscovered his golden touch on 13 February 2014 as he helped Norway to victory in the first ever mixed relay at the Winter Games. In doing so he claimed his eighth Olympic title and more significantly his 13th Olympic medal overall.
With eight golds, four silver and one bronze, Bjoerndalen now stands alone at the summit of Winter Olympian greats. In addition to his unrivalled Olympic medal haul, he also boasts 93 victories in the World Cup, amassed since 1995, together with 19 world titles and six large crystal globes.
Bjoerndalen’s remarkable Sochi Games ended with him being elected by his peers for an eight-year term on the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission, alongside Canadian ice hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser.
Sochi 2014 saw Bjoerndalen confirm his status as the best biathlete in history. His remarkable success, consistency and longevity are, in large measure, due to a peerless level of professionalism. He has pushed his sport to physical limits never seen before, with meticulous preparation and a punishing regime that has seen him clock up 900-1,000 training hours every year from the age of 15.
Few athletes have done as much to galvanise their sports. His approach raised the bar for a new generation of biathletes. He was, for example, the first biathlete to work with a personal shooting coach and a sports psychologist. And his love of competition has continued to drive him at a point where many might have been tempted to rest on their laurels, spurring him to constantly reinvent himself, not least when, at the age of 36, he took the radical step of revamping his shooting style ahead of Vancouver 2010.
In the years that followed Sochi 2014, the biathlon icon pressed ahead with his sporting career and his objective of making it to PyeongChang 2018. After recording his 95th World Cup win in the 20km individual in Ostersund (SWE) in December 2015, he set about preparing for the 2016 IBU World Championships on home soil.
Rising to the occasion in front of thousands of adoring fans in Oslo-Holmenkollen, the 42-year-old Bjoerndalen took his total of world championship medals to 44, 20 of them gold. In finishing second in the sprint, second in the pursuit, third in the mass start and winning the men’s relay with the Bø brothers (Tarjei and Johannes) and Emil Hegle Svendsen, he was Norway’s most successful performer at the championships.
Given his hectic schedule and sporting objectives, Bjoerndalen announced in April 2016 that he was resigning from his post with the IOC. Three months later he married the Belarusian biathlete Darya Domracheva, who gave birth to their daughter on 1 October. The most admired biathlete on the circuit, the Norwegian then contested his 22nd world championships in Hochfilzen (AUT) in February 2017. A medallist at every Worlds since 1997, he continued that sequence with a bronze in the mass start, his 45th medal.
Bjoerndalen saw two of his records equalled by France’s Martin Fourcade at Round 7 of the 2016/17 IBU World Cup season, held in March at Alpensia Biathlon Centre, one of the venues for PyeongChang 2018. It was there that Fourcade pulled level with the Norwegian on six large crystal globes and on 12 wins for the season, a feat Bjoerndalen achieved in 2004/05.
Paying homage to his esteemed elder, Fourcade said: “I’m part of the generation that grew up watching Ole Einar on TV, and it means a lot to me to reach his level. He has inspired me so much over the years and still does. I arrived here exhausted with jet lag, and then I saw Ole testing his skis for the next Games, like a little kid.
“He’s 43, he’s got nearly 100 victories under his belt and he’s still paying attention to all the little details. I can only thank him for being so inspirational for me, and I think that my 12th win of the season is a way of paying tribute to this amazing champion. What he has achieved is fantastic, and I’m proud of joining him.”
The owner of four Olympic medals, Fourcade has a long way to go if he is to better King Ole’s overall record of 13, which he may well add to at PyeongChang 2018, where he will join the very select club of seven-time Olympians.
“The Games really mean a lot to me,” said Bjoerndalen. “It’s the biggest event for us. It’s every four years and the best athletes come together and try to make a fantastic race.”
Can the great Norwegian extend his legend on the South Korean snow? With his iron will to win and love of the Games, there is every chance that he will.