Ole Einar Bjoerndalen: ‘Boring’ biathlete also greatest Olympian you’ve never heard of

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Ole Einar Bjoerndalen has traveled to the United States a few times. Salt Lake City for the 2002 Olympics. New York. A volleyball tournament on Laguna Beach, Calif.

Can he recall ever being recognized?

“No, I don’t think so,” Bjoerndalen told the entire U.S. media contingent at Norway biathlon’s media day last week.

It was a one-on-one interview.

Bjoerndalen, known as the “Biathlon King” in Norway, matched the record for most career Winter Olympic medals over all sports – 12 — by winning the opening 10km sprint Saturday evening. His nicknames also include “Cannibal” for his hunger for success and “Klumpi,” after a character in a children’s comic strip series.

U.S. sports fans appreciate records and longevity achievements. Remember Michael Phelps’ pursuit of Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina’s record of 18 Summer Olympic medals in 2012?

Bjoerndalen is finally getting some due across the Atlantic. Just in time, too, as these are his final Olympics.

He is 40, at his sixth Winter Games, and now the oldest Winter Olympic champion in an individual event.

WATCH: How is Bjoerndalen so good at 40?

In the U.S., he has gone largely unnoticed during a sterling 21-year professional career that has mostly taken place in Europe. And in the only sport in which the U.S. has never won an Olympic medal.

So, who is Ole Einar Bjoerndalen?

“He’s known to be a bit of a boring person,” Norwegian TV reporter Anders Skjerdingstad said. “He’s never in any kind of controversy. He’s always polite and serious about sports.”

Two days before his record-tying gold, Bjoerndalen stood in the middle of a brown, snow-surrounded patio at what’s called the Endurance Village up in the Caucasus Mountains, a short, bumpy van ride from the Sochi Olympic biathlon venue.

Norway’s women’s cross-country and men’s biathlon teams held back-to-back media gatherings. The turnout was strong for the Scandinavian nation’s press contingent, a few TV stations and several more print reporters. There were a few from other European nations and one American reporter.

Bjoerndalen was hardly the center of attention. Most came at first for cross-country queen Marit Bjoergen, a reticent brunette who could win an unprecedented six gold medals at these Games (and eventually take the career Olympic medal record from Bjoerndalen).

Later, the biathlon press officer handed a piece of paper to each media member with a speed-dating like interview schedule. A few minutes at a time. Then the biathlete moves onto the next reporter.

Bjoerndalen was the second most requested team member behind Emil Hegle Svendsen. Svendsen, 28 and once dubbed the “Prince” by Norwegian media, has been Norway’s best biathlete since the 2010 Olympics.

Svendsen laughed at trying to fill Bjoerndalen’s boots.

“I won’t even reach his ankles,” he said.

MORE: Bjoerndalen set for Olympic bow in Biathlon

Svendsen recalled being woken up by his father to watch Bjoerndalen win his first gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics in the middle of the Norwegian night. Bjoerndalen became a national hero.

“I think there was like a thing a couple years ago where they asked how many people knew [Bjoerndalen] in Norway,” Svendsen said. “I think 98 percent of the population knew.”

Svendsen, 6-foot-1 with chic dark sunglasses and classic Scandinavian blond hair, looked much more an athletic superstar than Bjoerndalen as they stood together for photos.

Bjoerndalen, listed at 5-foot-10 with a dimpled chin, wore a hood with red shades and was comfortable answering English questions about what kept him going at 40 years old.

“What is motivation?” he asked. “I have this from childhood, I think.”

source: AP
Photo credit: AP

Bjoerndalen was born at or near in the industrial river city of Drammen, the same birthplace as legendary speed skater Johann Olav Koss.

He was the fourth of five children to a farmer and a housewife.

“He was growing up on a very small farm in Norway in very poor conditions,” said Ola Lunde, who coached Bjoerndalen at three different periods from 1990 through 2002.

Bjoerndalen took up biathlon at age 10 alongside one of his older brothers, Dag. He did both biathlon and cross-country skiing until age 17, when he began to focus on the former.

“Coming from a simple family with a lot of training when I was young,” Bjoerndalen said. “The right atmosphere around you growing up.”

A prodigy, he was one of two 18-year-olds chosen to represent Norway at the 1993 Junior World Championships. Bjoerndalen took 23rd and 47th in two individual events.

“He should not have come there,” said Lunde, since top junior worlds competitors are normally 19 or 20. “It was one year before they should go to the World Championships, but it was very important for them to get experience. They had potential I had never seen before.”

The next year, Bjoerndalen returned to the Junior World Championships and won both events. He made his Olympic debut a year later in Lillehammer, Norway, and placed 28th and 36h in two individual races and seventh in a relay.

His career-defining moment came four years later at the Nagano Olympics. Bjoerndalen was on pace to win the 10km sprint when the the race was stopped after 40 minutes due to snow and fog making the shooting targets nearly invisible.

It was rescheduled for the following day. Bjoerndalen started over, shot cleanly and won by more than one minute, the same margin separating second place from 18th place.

“My coolest feeling ever,” said Bjoerndalen, who also took a relay silver in 1998.

He was just getting started. Bjoerndalen swept the four biathlon golds at the 2002 Olympics, giving him six total Olympic medals.

He entered a cross-country race to boot in Salt Lake City and finished fifth, but the original winner by more than two minutes was stripped for doping.

The blistering, tainted pace the drugged-up German turned Spaniard set ruined the competition. Bjoerndalen used all of his energy to keep up early and was second going into the final lap but faded out of the medals. A Swedish pre-race favorite dropped out less than halfway through.

Bjoerndalen won three more individual medals at Torino 2006 – none gold, thanks to the flu – and a relay gold and individual silver at the 2010 Olympics.

That gave him 11 total, one behind countryman Bjorn Daehlie, who won a record 12 over three Olympics from 1992 to 1998. Daehlie’s treasure chest included eight gold, four silver and no bronze.

Daehlie was known for flashes of flamboyance, crossing finish lines skiing backwards, mimicking war dances and blowing kisses. He was accused of doping during his career in a Swedish film last February and denied blood doping on prime-time TV.

That’s a contrast from Bjoerndalen. In October, he wasn’t present when drug testers showed up at his Austrian home. He blamed “sloppiness” on his part for not notifying anti-doping authorities he was training in Oslo. No harm done.

He’s reported to abstain from alcohol, save gargling cognac in the morning, and doesn’t let the public see his frustrations. Though he does curse, Svendsen said, and throw ski poles, Lunde said.

Bjoerndalen and Daehlie have been friends for two decades.

MORE: The race to be the most decorated Winter Olympian

“For me, [Daehlie] is still the biggest star in Norway and in the world,” Bjoerndalen said. “He’s really a big hero.”

One memory stood out to Bjoerndalen in particular, when Daehlie, near the end of his career, called Bjoerndalen after the 1998 season.

“[Daehlie] said, ‘What the hell are you doing, because you are so strong this year. I need to know exactly everything what you have done this year,’” Bjoerndalen said. “It’s really interesting speaking with him. I get a lot more back from it.”

Bjoerndalen didn’t think Daehlie would attend the Sochi Olympics.

“He has a lot of things to do,” he said in a nod to Daehlie’s real estate, fashion and media ventures. “I think he will sit home and look on a TV.”

But there Daehlie was Saturday as Bjoerndalen picked up medal No. 12 and gold No. 7 in the 10km sprint. They embraced afterward. Daehlie knew Bjoerndalen will hold the total medals record by himself by the end of the Olympics.

“I give it away and bow into the dust,” Daehlie told Norwegian TV. “I’ve got to think that Bjoergen and he can fight for new records, actually. Mine will go up in smoke in the next couple of days.”

Bjoerndalen’s sprint victory set him up for a record-breaking 13th medal in the 12.5km pursuit on Monday. In the pursuit, skiers start at intervals based on their finishes from the sprint. Bjoerndalen will go first as the winner. Essentially, he gets a head start for winning the previous race.

Norway is also favored to win both the men’s relay and the debut of the mixed relay next week. Golds in each of those events would likely mean Bjoerndalen finishes his career with more gold medals than anybody else.

Bjoerndalen said those records weren’t his goals coming into Sochi. His objective was one more gold medal.

“He wants one perfect [individual] performance,” Lunde said.

source: AP
Photo credit: AP

He got it and said after winning Saturday, “I am satisfied now. … I made my gold and that’s cool.”

That simple, flawless vision fits with his demeanor. Bjoerndalen rarely makes headlines for anything other than competition. His work ethic is stuff of legend. Reporters joke that he celebrates victories by riding a stationary bike.

“He’s single handedly changed the sport,” said three-time U.S. Olympic biathlete Tim Burke. “He really turned it into a professional sport, in the late ‘90s, I would say. He’s very innovative, and he became so dominant that everyone else had to react to the way he was training to be competitive.”

He’s spent more time living in at elevation in Austria and Italy than Norway. Over the holidays, Bjoerndalen stayed at an Italian village at 4,500 feet, the same altitude as the Sochi biathlon venue.

Other nations have filmed his skiing and told their biathletes to copy it. In shooting, he was one of the first to switch from two- or three-breath cadences to one breath between shots.

“You were seeing athletes taking up to 40 seconds in the shooting range for their five shots,” Burke said. “Now, in standing [position, versus prone], it’s low 20s.”

Bjoerndalen has also excelled mentally, key in a sport where a simple concentration lapse in the shooting range can cost one medals. A Norwegian vacuum cleaner and air purifier salesman turned motivational speaker was once his psychology coach.

He stayed largely injury free until 2011, when Bjoerndalen, who doubles as a carpenter, suffered a back injury while reportedly lifting a log as he helped somebody chop firewood.

He spent 10 days in a hospital. Even worse, he couldn’t train fully for five weeks.

Off the snow, he also enjoys rock climbing, motorcycles and Dire Straits. He converses in Norwegian, German and English on his Facebook page, which has about 91,000 likes, comparable to NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew.

In 2012, he divorced his wife of six years. He also fell behind some of Norway’s younger biathletes. Some called for him to retire.

Bjoerndalen would have none of it. His “sporting philosophy,” according to his Sochi 2014 athlete bio, includes the line, “grit your teeth and get the best out of yourself.”

He persevered and moved right back behind Svendsen as the Norwegian No. 2 this season.

“He’s as good now as he’s ever been,” Burke said.

MORE: France’s Fourcade threatens Bjoerndalen’s swansong

Norwegian media say Bjoerndalen’s popularity is largest in Germany and Russia, where biathlon is more popular.

At home, the top cross-country skiers and Svendsen receive more headlines these days since they win more often.

“Ole is sixth or seventh,” most famous now, Lunde said.

Bjoerndalen looks likely to stay a part of the Olympic movement after retiring from competition.

He is one of nine candidates for election to the International Olympic Committee Ahletes’ Commission. Two spots are available. His résumé would seem to stack up pretty well.

This 1,000-pound bronze statue, reportedly unveiled with King Harald V in attendance, is a lasting symbol of Bjoerndalen’s legacy in Norway.

“My first reaction was, ‘I’m not dead yet!’” the watch-collecting Bjoerndalen said, according to Sport Express. “My career isn’t over yet!”

Bjoerndalen has at most five more races left as an Olympian. If he does at least four, he will break one more Olympic record for the most events entered in a career.

Longevity is a point of pride in Norway. The Norwegian Olympic Team media guide lists the nation’s average male (79.4) and female (83.4) life expectancies on page two.

Biathlon followers have enjoyed the King for two decades. In Sochi, those just tuning in can catch the final chapters of an unmatched career. Bjoerndalen will enjoy it, just as he has collecting 12 medals over 22 Olympic events in six Winter Games so far.

“You want to be the best in your sport,” Bjoerndalen said. “This sport has never been a job for me. Always a hobby. I want to create my sport, always. So, yeah, I do like my sport.”

U.S. Olympians reveal they have defective Rio medals

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Kyle Snyder made history at the Rio Olympics by becoming the youngest American wrestler to win a gold medal.

The medal will soon be history as well, to be replaced by the IOC and Rio organizers because of damage.

Snyder and Helen Maroulis, another U.S. gold medalist wrestler, are among a group of more than 100 athletes from around the world with defective Olympic medals. Beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh Jennings says her bronze medal from last summer is flaking and rusting.

Rio Games spokesman Mario Andrada said Friday that officials have noted problems with the covering on 6 to 7 percent of the medals.

“The most common issue is that they were dropped or mishandled, and the varnish has come off and they’ve rusted or gone black in the spot where they were damaged,” Andrada said.

Snyder, who wrestles for Ohio State, was 20 when he won his medal. He noticed an issue with his medal the day after he won it.

He went to a party at the Team USA house in Rio, where he said multiple people handled the medal as they celebrated. Snyder said he later discovered a scratch on the back of it, though he added there has been no further damage.

Snyder said he has until the end of the week to return his gold medal and has no idea when he’ll receive his replacement.

“It wasn’t too big of a deal,” Snyder said. “But since they’re giving me a new one, it’s kind of cool.”

Rio de Janeiro spent about $12 billion to organize the Games, which were plagued by cost-cutting, poor attendance and reports of bribes and corruption linked to the building of some Olympic-related facilities.

Nine months later, many of the venues are empty and have no tenants or income – with the maintenance costs dumped on the federal government. In addition to the issues with the medals, which featured the Rio and Olympic logos, the local organizing committee still owes creditors about $30 million.

Greg Massialas, a national coach for the U.S. fencing team in Rio, said in a message to The Associated Press that the silver medal son Alex won is damage free. He added that he hasn’t heard about any issues with other American fencers.

U.S. shooter Ginny Thrasher and boxer Claressa Shields, along with men’s tennis bronze medalist Kei Nishikori of Japan, also reported that their gold medals are intact.

Walsh Jennings, who won three golds in previous Olympics, says her medals tend to get beaten up because she doesn’t hesitate to let people touch them or try them on. But she won’t consider locking them up because people are inspired by them.

“They’ve offered to replace them. I’m not sure if I want to swap it out,” Walsh-Jennings told the AP, adding the reason was “100 percent sentimental.”

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U.S. stars face doubts at Pre Classic; broadcast schedule

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In Rio, the U.S. failed to win a single gold medal in the 100m, 200m and 400m for the first time in 40 years.

If the early track season is any indication, the climb back to the top of the podium at the world championships in August will be a major challenge.

American sprinters size up against international competition at the Prefontaine Classic on Saturday (NBC and NBC Sports Gold, 4-6 p.m. ET). Coverage from the Diamond League meet in Eugene, Ore., starts with distance races Friday night (NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold, 11-midnight ET).

The deepest race is the women’s 200m, which features the top two U.S. sprinters in Tori Bowie and Allyson Felix. The field includes every 2016 Olympic 200m medalist — Elaine ThompsonDafne Schippers and Bowie — plus Rio 400m gold and silver medalists Shaunae Miller and Felix.

The Jamaican Thompson and Bahamian Miller already look ready to win their first world titles in August.

Thompson crushed Bowie in a 100m two weeks ago, 10.78 seconds to 11.04. Miller ran 49.77 to win a 400m at the same meet, the fastest time of 2017 by a significant .27 of a second.

Bowie has the fastest 200m time in the world this year at 22.09, but Miller has run a wind-aided 21.90 and Thompson clocked 22.19 into a strong headwind.

Then there’s Felix, whose scant race experience in 2017 consists of a 4x400m leg in April and a 100m last Saturday. She has plenty to prove at Pre, at 31 years old and coming off an injury-plagued 2016.

Justin Gatlin and LaShawn Merritt carried U.S. men’s sprinting the last Olympic cycle, but they are 35 and 30 years old, respectively.

The Rio 100m silver medalist Gatlin in particular is showing his age this season, reportedly while coming back from minor April injuries.

He has raced twice, clocking 10.14 and 10.28 seconds over 100m, the slowest he has been since the early stages of his comeback from a four-year doping ban in 2010.

In Eugene, Gatlin faces 22-year-old Canadian Andre De Grasse, billed by many as the top challenger to Usain Bolt in the 100m and Wayde van Niekerk in the 200m at worlds in August.

Merritt, who owns seven 400m medals from the Olympics and worlds, is the top seed in Saturday’s 400m, but he ranks No. 6 in the world this year with a best of 44.78 seconds. Merritt has a history of faster times at Pre (44.39, 44.51, 43.97 and 44.32 the last four years).

Eugene start lists are available here. Here’s the schedule (all times Eastern):

FRIDAY
10:34 p.m. — Women’s javelin
10:37 — Women’s long jump
11:06 — Women’s 800m
11:14 — Women’s 1500m
11:25 — Women’s 3000m steeplechase
11:41 — Women’s 5000m

SATURDAY
3:40 p.m. — Men’s pole vault
3:44 — Men’s triple jump
4:03 — Women’s 400m hurdles
4:08 — Women’s high jump
4:13 — Men’s 5000m
4:33 — Women’s 100m hurdles
4:41 — Men’s 110m hurdles
4:50 — Women’s 100m
4:56 — Women’s shot put
5 — Men’s international mile
5:09 — Men’s 400m
5:16 — Women’s 800m
5:24 — Men’s 100m
5:32 — Women’s 1500m
5:45 — Women’s 200m
5:52 — Men’s Bowerman Mile

Here are five Saturday events to watch:

Men’s pole vault — 3:40 p.m. ET

The phenom of the early season is 17-year-old Swede Armand Duplantis, a Louisiana high school junior whose mother is from Sweden. Duplantis, owner of the highest outdoor clearance in the world this year, makes his Diamond League debut in Eugene.

He does it against every medalist from the 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics, led by Rio gold medalist Thiago Braz and world-record holder Renaud Lavillenie. Saturday’s winner likely becomes the world championships favorite.

Men’s 5000m — 4:13 p.m. ET

Mo Farah hasn’t lost a 5000m since the 2013 Pre Classic. His 10-meet winning streak is on the line against Rio silver and bronze medalists Paul Chelimo (USA) and Hagos Gebrhiwet (Ethiopia). A Who’s Who of challengers Farah has previously vanquished get one more shot at him before Farah’s final world championships on the track in London in August.

Men’s 110m hurdles — 4:41 p.m. ET

This field features the last two Olympic champions — Jamaican Omar McLeod and American Aries Merritt — and the last two world champions — Russian Sergey Shubenkov and American David Oliver.

But the most intriguing name is Devon Allen, the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials winner and former University of Oregon wide receiver. Allen, who has given up football for now, came back from a September torn ACL earlier this month and ranks No. 5 in the world for 2017.

Men’s 100m — 5:24 p.m. ET

Justin Gatlin and Andre De Grasse will hope this showdown doesn’t yield the dud of their meeting in Doha on May 5. Back then, the Gatlin-De Grasse winner was poised to become the biggest threat to Usain Bolt at worlds in August. But Gatlin was fourth an De Grasse fifth in Qatar, throwing doubt on both sprinters.

Nobody else in the Pre field looks like a world championships medal contender. Bolt debuts in his last season June 10, while the absent South African Akani Simbine has broken 10 seconds six times in seven races this year, including beating Gatlin and De Grasse in Doha.

Women’s 200m — 5:45 p.m. ET

The reigning Olympic 100m, 200m and 400m champions are in the same field for the second time in recent history (2012 Olympic 200m final). Thompson has to be the favorite. She hasn’t lost a 100m or 200m since last June and dusted the Olympic silver medalist Schippers by .26 in Doha three weeks ago.

Watch for Felix, as her result may go into determining if she attempts a double at worlds in August. Felix has a bye into the worlds 400m as the defending champion, meaning she will race the 100m and/or 200m at the U.S. Championships. Should she finish top three at nationals in either sprint, she will then determine which race(s) she enters at worlds.

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