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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.”

Paris 2024 Olympic bid logo unveiled on Arc de Triomphe

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The Paris 2024 Olympic bid logo was unveiled at the Arc de Triomphe at 20:24 (8:24 p.m.) on Tuesday.

The logo is a representation of the number 24 and a modern interpretation of the Eiffel Tower.

Paris, seeking to host the Olympics on the 100-year anniversary of its second time holding the Games, is bidding against Budapest, Los Angeles and Rome.

Paris hopes to become the second city to host the Olympics three times, joining London.

International Olympic Committee members will vote to choose the 2024 Olympic host city in September 2017.

MORE: 2024 Olympic bidding coverage

 

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Two years to Pyeongchang: Updates on Sochi Olympic medalists

The Army Capt. Fogt will go back on active duty in May, heading to Fort Huachuca in Arizona. He expects to spend six months there and then around a year and a half “wherever the Army sends me.”
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The Winter Olympic cycle reaches its halfway point this month, with Tuesday marking the two-years-out date from the Pyeongchang 2018 Opening Ceremony, the first Winter Games held in South Korea.

With that in mind, here’s what the 2014 U.S. Olympic medalists have been up to in the last two years:

Sage Kotsenburg (Gold, Snowboard Slopestyle): One of the surprise Sochi champions finished fifth at the 2015 Winter X Games and 10th at last month’s edition in Aspen. Kotsenburg, who made the X Games slopestyle podium once in seven tries, said he would like to compete in both slopestyle and the new event of big air in Pyeongchang.

Jamie Anderson (Gold, Snowboard Slopestyle): The first female U.S. Olympic medalist in Sochi placed second at the 2015 and 2016 Winter X Games, doing so in the most recent edition two months after breaking her collarbone.

Kaitlyn Farrington (Gold, Snowboard Halfpipe): Announced her retirement on Jan. 15, 2015, after a doctor told her she can never snowboard again due to a congenital spine condition she learned of in fall 2014. Farrington will be the first Olympic women’s halfpipe champion who will not attempt to defend her title.

Joss Christensen (Gold, Ski Slopestyle): A dog bit him while in Sarajevo shooting a ski film in 2014. He needed 30 to 40 injections, including rabies and tetanus shots. Christensen came back to earn his first X Games medal, a silver, in 2015, and finished ninth last month.

Meryl DavisCharlie White (Gold, Figure Skating): The first U.S. Olympic ice dance champions haven’t competed since Sochi but haven’t retired, either. White said in October they would probably have to return no later than halfway through the 2016-17 season if the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games are their target.

David Wise (Gold, Ski Halfpipe): Wise and his wife welcomed their second child in summer 2014. In competition, he followed up his three straight X Games titles from 2012 through 2014 with a fourth-place finish in 2015 and an eighth last month, when he competed after separating his collarbone the week before.

Ted Ligety (Gold, Alpine Skiing): The man known as Mr. GS finished the 2014 Olympic season by earning his fifth World Cup giant slalom season title on a tiebreaker. He three-peated as World giant slalom champion last year, but injuries have slowed him on the World Cup circuit, including a January torn ACL that ended his current season.

Maddie Bowman (Gold, Ski Halfpipe): Ran her X Games winning streak to four with victories the last two years, coming back after knee surgeries in May 2014 and February 2015.

Mikaela Shiffrin (Gold, Alpine Skiing): The youngest Olympic slalom champion ran her World Cup slalom title streak to three in 2014 and 2015. She also repeated as World champion last year. This season, Shiffrin suffered an MCL tear and bone fracture in a Dec. 12 crash but hopes to return to competition Monday.

Devin Logan (Silver, Ski Slopestyle): Fourth and seventh at Winter X Games the last two years. Logan, who also competes in ski halfpipe, returned after dislocating a shoulder at the Dew Tour Mountain Championships in December.

Gus Kenworthy (Silver, Ski Slopestyle): Earned his first X Games Aspen medals, silver in ski halfpipe and ski slopestyle, in January after coming out as gay Oct. 22.

Noelle Pikus-Pace (Silver, Skeleton): Retired after her emotional silver medal in Sochi.

Andrew Weibrecht (Silver, Alpine Skiing): Earned his first career World Cup podium in his 117th start on Dec. 5 and added a second Jan. 22 after coming back from a 2014 preseason crash and concussion.

Elana Meyers Taylor (Silver, Bobsled): Became the first U.S. woman to pilot a World Championships-winning bobsled last February. Sidelined by long-term concussion effects in December but won in her World Cup return Saturday.

Lauryn Williams (Silver, Bobsled): Announced her retirement Feb. 12, 2015, after coming back from Sochi to do four World Cup races that season.

U.S. Women’s Hockey Team (Silver): Exacted revenge from rival Canada by winning the 2015 World Championship, 7-5, after squandering a 5-2 lead. Sochi stars Hilary KnightMeghan Duggan and goalie Jessie Vetter were part of that team. Amanda Kessel sat out nearly two years after Sochi due to a concussion she sustained before the Winter Games and returned to play for the University of Minnesota last Friday.

U.S. Men’s Short Track Speed Skating Team (Silver): From the 5000m relay team, Eddy Alvarez and Jordan Malone retired, with Alvarez moving up the Chicago White Sox minor-league system. J.R. Celski took the 2014-15 season off, returned this season, suffered a knee injury at the U.S. Championships in January and was not on the announced team for the remaining World Cups and World Championships this winter. Chris Creveling continues to compete.

Hannah Kearney (Bronze, Moguls): Retired after tying the record for most World Cup moguls victories with her 46th on March 16 and earning the World Cup season title.

Jeremy Abbott (Bronze, Figure Skating): Changed his plans to retire after the 2013-14 season after placing a career-best-matching fifth at the March 2014 World Championships. Was fifth at the 2015 U.S. Championships and chose to take the 2015-16 season off from competition.

Gracie Gold (Bronze, Figure Skating): Fifth at the March 2014 Worlds, fourth at the 2015 Worlds and reclaimed her U.S. title last month. Expects 2018 to be her final Olympic run.

Ashley Wagner (Bronze, Figure Skating): Seventh at the March 2014 Worlds, captured her third U.S. title in January 2015 and then was fifth at the March 2015 Worlds. Along with Gold and Polina Edmunds, hopes to become the first U.S. female singles skater to earn an Olympic or Worlds medal since 2006 at this year’s Worlds in Boston next month.

Marissa CastelliSimon Shnapir (Bronze, Figure Skating): Ended their pairs partnership after placing 11th at the March 2014 Worlds. Castelli now skates with Mervin Tran, and they finished third at the U.S. Championships last month. Shnapir paired with DeeDee Leng last season, after which he retired.

Julia Mancuso (Bronze, Alpine Skiing): Cut her 2014-15 season short due to hip pain and the underwent surgery in November, keeping her out for the entire 2015-16 season.

Erin Hamlin (Bronze, Luge): Fourth and eighth at the 2014 and 2015 World Luge Championships, after becoming the first U.S. Olympic singles medalist in Sochi. Hamlin won her first two-run World Cup race on Dec. 5 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kelly Clark (Bronze, Snowboard Halfpipe): Second to teenage sensation Chloe Kim at the 2015 Winter X Games and fifth this year, her worst finish in nine years.

Nick Goepper (Bronze, Ski Slopestyle): Won his third straight X Games ski slopestyle title in 2015 and was 11th this year.

Matthew Antoine (Bronze, Skeleton): Fourth in last year’s World Cup standings and sixth this year. Struggled with depression after Sochi, almost walking away from the sport.

Bode Miller (Bronze, Alpine Skiing): Competed once since Sochi, severing his right hamstring tendon in a 2015 World Championships super-G crash. Sitting out this season and called a sixth Olympics at age 40 in 2018 “really unlikely” before saying there’s a “good likelihood” he races again.

U.S. Men’s Bobsled Team (Bronze, Two-Man and Four-Man): Steven Holcomb piloted a sled to a World Cup podium finish for the first time in nearly two years with a win Jan. 8. The 2010 Olympic four-man champion was slowed last season by a torn Achilles from Sochi and this season by a quadriceps strain that rendered him unable to push his sled. Fellow two-time Sochi bronze medalist Steven Langton retired, as did four-man bronze medalist Curt Tomasevicz. Army Capt. Chris Fogt, also part of the four-man team, said in April 2014 he expected to spend at least the next two years on active duty.

Alex Deibold (Bronze, Snowboard Cross): Eliminated in the semifinals and quarterfinals of the 2014 and 2015 Winter X Games.

Jamie Greubel Poser (Bronze, Bobsled): Made the podium in 10 straight World Cup races in 2015 and 2016 and looks to earn her first World Championships medal on Saturday.

Aja Evans (Bronze, Bobsled): Said in Sochi she would switch to heptathlon and later had ACL surgery.

MORE: 16 Olympic sports events to watch in 2016 (before the Rio Games)