“Ole is … the greatest Olympian”

2 Comments

SOCHI — We all watch our own Olympics. This idea really clicked for me in 2012, at the Olympics in London, when all of England was enraptured by the story of rower Katherine Grainger. I had never heard of rower Katherine Grainger. Her magnificent quest to win an Olympic gold medal after three consecutive Olympics winning silver had missed me entirely. When she won gold, a nation rejoiced. Front page headlines exploded. Broadcasters cried.

It was on page 12D in your local American newspaper. Maybe. Below a minor league box score.

Then again, around that same time, Gabby Douglas had become an American star by winning the all-around gold medal in gymnastics. She was America’s sweetheart. She was on all the talk shows, on all the magazine covers, she would soon be on posters in little girls rooms all across American (including my own little girl’s room). And her news: On page 97 in the British tabloids. Maybe. Below some short story about what the guys from One Direction thought about Katherine Grainger.

That’s the wonder of the Games. They are so colossal, so sweeping, that every sporting nation sees it through its own prism. We are watching an American Olympics, which is different from a Finnish Olympics, which is different from a Chinese Olympics, which is different from a French Olympics. The Olympics bring the world together. And, at the same time, the world stays apart.

Look: In Canada, the story is hockey, hockey, also hockey, and, on occasion, hockey. The men’s hockey hasn’t even begun. Doesn’t matter. The big story of the Olympics is what Canadians are thinking the various skating lines will be.

WATCH: Bjoerndalen peaking at 40

The story in the Netherlands is speed skating, always speed skating. It is all but impossible to quantify how crazy the Dutch are for skating (you can usually tell by all the orange in the stands of speed skating events), but here’s a good one, provided by NBC research: The Netherlands have won 93 Olympic medals. Eighty-nine of them are speed skating medals. Yea: 89 out of 93.The Dutch are watching their legend Irene Wuest, who won two golds in Vancouver and already has won one gold medal at these Olympics and can definitely win another.

In Germany: Luge. Very luge. Germans have won 10 of the 14 men’s singles in luge (including Felix Loch winning gold this year) and even the other four all were from AROUND Germany. You can’t win luge without some German connection. Germans have won 10 of the 14 women’s singles in luge, including a 1-2 finish on Tuesday. You get the sense that in Germany, people luge to work.

It is like this everywhere you turn: Korea will stop as a nation when figure skater Yuna Kim goes; the Japanese love their ski jumping and will be focused on 17-year-old phenom Sara Takanashi; in America we’ll be watching our snowboarding icon Shaun White.

But no nation — no nation on planet earth — is quite as fanatically focused as the great nation of Norway is on its Olympic giant, Ole Einar Bjoerndalen and his quest to become the all-time Olympic medalist.

Bjoerndalen’s anonymity in the United States is about as well known as anonymity can be. He has won 12 Olympic medals. We’ve never heard of him. He has won seven gold medals. We’ve never heard of him. He tied his countryman with the uncomfortably similar sounding name Bjorn Daehlie. We’ve never heard of HIM either. Bjoerndalen’s sport is biathlon, a sport we mostly make fun of because it’s skiing then shooting then skiing, which sounds entirely random to us. David Letterman had the eternal crack — he thought there should be a summer biathlon where you swim a lap, then grill a steak.

WATCH: A record-tying win for Bjoerndalen

But in truth the biathlon is an extraordinary athletic endeavor because it demands two diametrically opposed skills. The cross-country skiing part is intense, grueling, physical, exhausting. And the shooting at targets after all that skiing demands, in an instant, slowing down the heart rate and clearing the mind and being utterly precise. A more apt comparison than the steak grilling thing might be running 10 miles at full speed then removing someone’s gallbladder than running 10 more miles at full speed.

Bjoerndalen is the best there has ever been at biathlon and while that might mean nothing to most of us in America, it is the very peak of athletic achievement in Norway. “We have a saying that in Norway, we are born with skis on,” says the great Daehlie, winner of 12 Olympic medals including eight golds in cross-country skiing. And then, as if worried that he has misrepresented his nation, he adds modestly. “This is not true.”

Daehlie says he is honored that Bjoerndalen certainly will break his records for most gold medals and most total medals at the Olympics — “Ole is someone young people should look up to,” he says — and while others might find this humility unlikely*, it seems Daehlie could not react any other way. “I am Ole’s biggest fan,” he says.

*Even Norwegian industrialist Gerhard Heiberg, who headed the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, joked to Daehlie: “I would have thought you would want him to fail so you may keep your record a little longer.” Daehlie looked at him with a sense of wonder, as if he did not quite understand what he was saying.

See, Norwegians root for Norwegians at the Winter Olympics. It is embedded in the nation’s soul. How else can you explain that a nation of five million people — a nation with roughly the population of Alabama — has won more gold medals, more silver medals, more bronze medals and FIFTY more total medals than any other country?

“It is hard to explain,” Daehlie says of the passion Norway has for these games. “I think it is like the World Cup soccer to us. It is like the Super Bowl to us. People grow up with these sports. They learn to ski with their father, their mother, it is how families bond.”

MORE: The King misses

How can you capture the passion? Television numbers might do. Saturday, when Bjoerndalen went to tie the Olympic medal record in the 10-kilometer biathlon, the television share was 84.1. That means 84.1 percent of the televisions on in Norway — I’m going to repeat this so there’s no misunderstanding, 84 PERCENT — were watching the biathlon.

This last Super Bowl — which was the most watched television show in American history — had a 69 share, to give you an idea.

But here’s something even more amazing than Bjoerndalen’s 84.1 share. Earlier in the day was the women’s skiathlon which — and I mean this with the deepest respect — could not possibly sound like a more boring television event. In the skiathlon, the skiers cross country ski for 15 kilometers (a little more than nine miles) using what’s called the “classical technique,” then they switch equipment and cross-country ski another 15 kilometers using the “freestyle technique.”  To the untrained eye, it is a bit like watching someone mow lawns for nine miles using the “cylinder mower” and then mow lawns for another nine miles using the “rotary mower.”

In Norway? Well, the star of the skiathlon was Norway’s Marit Bjoergen, who is about as important to the nation as Bjoerndalen (she has a chance to win six gold medals here) and are you even ready for this? The TV share for skiathlon was 87.2.

Bjoerndalen, by all accounts, is the perfect Norwegian star. Daehlie too. They are quiet, sober and driven. They are so earnestly modest that you just watch in wonder.

“For me, (Daehlie) is still the biggest star in Norway and the world,” Bjoerndalen says.

“Ole is a great friend and a great hero,” Daehlie says. “He is the greatest Olympian.”

Bjoerndalen will set the Olympic record at these Games, no later than next week when Norway is almost guaranteed to medal at the biathlon relays. And the nation will be spellbound. Norway’s King Harald will celebrate his 77th birthday in Sochi, perhaps just one day before Bjoerndalen clinches the record in the relay. Perhaps nine out of ten television sets in Norway will be tuned in.

All the while the rest of the world will be, you know, focused on their own Olympics.

“I cannot come up with something that is quite as big in the United States,” Daehlie says. “Norway is a small country. We ski, we jump, we go fast downhill. This is who we are.”

Aging NHL All-Stars still in play as Canada shapes Olympic roster

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NHL All-Stars Jarome Iginla and Shane Doan could still be on the Canada Olympic team in February, while officials hope the 25-man roster is largely in place in November.

GM Sean Burke said he talked to the players’ agents on Tuesday morning, one month after Burke first told media that Iginla and Doan were being considered for PyeongChang.

The NHL is not participating at the Olympics for the first time since 1994, which Burke said was the last time Canada didn’t enter as the gold-medal favorite.

It may be an underdog in PyeongChang to Russia, which is expected to field a team mostly or wholly of players from its domestic league, the KHL, the world’s second-best league to the NHL. And possibly Alex Ovechkin defying the NHL’s mandate.

Iginla and Doan, a pair of 40-year-old forwards, are unsigned and could choose international play over the NHL.

Burke on Tuesday echoed what Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney said last month, that Iginla and Doan have to play in a non-NHL league if they want to be considered for the Olympics.

“If anybody’s going to play in the Olympics, there has to be a plan for the full year,” Burke said. “That includes obviously playing with us in events, but it also has to include playing somewhere in league play. … Anybody that’s going to play on this team, no matter what their pedigree or what they’ve done in the past, we’re going to consider. We want to look at all possibilities, but there has to be a long-term plan because it’s going to be very intense.”

Iginla played for Canada at the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Olympics. Doan suited up in 2006.

Meanwhile, 45 less-heralded Canadian professionals were evaluated at a pair of tournaments in Russia this month. Burke said a “majority” of the Olympic team will come from that group of 45.

“We’ll get our structure down, and then If we have to bring players in at a later date, I think it should be pretty easy for them to come in,” head coach Willie Desjardins said Tuesday.

While not tipping his hand, Burke noted that the three goalies who combined to play in those tournaments “all performed very well.”

Those goalies all have NHL experience — Ben Scrivens (144 games from 2011-16), Justin Peters (83 games from 2010-16) and Kevin Poulin (50 games for the New York Islanders).

“Scrivens I thought was outstanding,” said Burke, a Canadian Olympic goalie in 1988 and ’92 and three-time NHL All-Star. “As we start out today I think we have three really quality goaltenders.”

Burke added that he wanted to “get our roster down to as close to our Olympic team as we can” by Canada’s next tournament in Finland in November.

“We do have to make decisions before probably the ideal time,” Burke said.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: USA Hockey reaches out to aging NHL players, too

Mo Farah says goodbye in Zurich; Diamond League preview

AP
Leave a comment

Mo Farah‘s last track race is lined up to be one of his most difficult.

Farah, who swept the 5000m and 10,000m at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, is moving to road racing and marathons after this season.

The Somalian-born Brit’s decorated track career ends Thursday, at the first of two Diamond League finals meets in Zurich.

NBC Sports Gold coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET and continues through NBCSN coverage from 2-4 p.m.

It is by no means a coronation for Farah. He races the 5000m, the event he lost at the world championships in London two weeks ago. The man who beat him at worlds, Ethiopian Muktar Edris, is in the Zurich field.

As is American Paul Chelimo, who took silver to Farah in the Rio Olympic 5000m and bronze at worlds behind Edris and Farah.

Here are the Zurich entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

12:25 pm. — Women’s Triple Jump
12:35 p.m. — Men’s High Jump
1:10 p.m. — Men’s Pole Vault
1:25 p.m. — Women’s Javelin
1:35 p.m. — Women’s Shot Put
2:05 p.m. — Women’s 400m Hurdles
2:13 p.m. — Men’s 1500m
2:24 p.m. — Women’s 200m
2:31 p.m. — Women’s 3000m Steeplechase
2:45 p.m. — Men’s Long Jump
2:49 p.m. — Men’s 400m Hurdles
2:55 p.m. — Men’s Javelin
2:58 p.m. — Women’s 800m
3:08 p.m. — Men’s 100m
3:14 p.m. — Men’s 5000m
3:35 p.m. — Women’s 100m Hurdles
3:43 p.m. — Men’s 400m

Here are five events to watch:

Women’s 200m — 2:24 p.m.
Olympic champion Elaine Thompson is entered here after skipping the 200m at worlds. She will face the 2015 and 2017 World 200m champion, Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands, and the Olympic 400m champion, Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas.

Thompson shockingly finished out of the medals at worlds (fifth in the 100m), reportedly slowed by a stomach illness and an Achilles problem. The Jamaican looked closer to herself last Sunday, winning a 100m in Birmingham over the world silver medalist, plus Schippers and Miller-Uibo. But she has trailed off from consistently racing the 200m, which is Schippers’ preferred event.

Men’s High Jump — 2:35 p.m.
Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim is on the verge of capping the first undefeated season for a male high jumper since Swedish legend Stefan Holm in 2004. Who knows, there may be a world-record attempt on Thursday.

Barshim, 26, cleared 2.40 meters for the first time since June 2016 in Birmingham on Sunday, and then took the bar. The world record is 2.45 meters, set by Cuban Javier Sotomayor in 1993. Barshim took attempts at equaling or bettering that mark two of the last three years, but has not tried in 2017. This is his last chance to do so on the Diamond League stage until next spring.

Women’s 800m — 2:58 p.m.
Speaking of dominance, Caster Semenya can wrap up her second straight undefeated Diamond League campaign in the 800m in Zurich.

The scrutinized South African was in usual form at worlds, dusting Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and American record holder Ajee’ Wilson with her trademark blowout finishing kick. All of Semenya’s closest pursuers the last two years are in Thursday’s race save Wilson.

Men’s 100m — 3:08 p.m.
Justin Gatlin lines up for his first 100m since upsetting Usain Bolt at worlds. Bolt may be retired, but perhaps an even more familiar foe is in Zurich: Asafa Powell. Gatlin and Powell once shared the 100m world record of 9.77, before Gatlin’s time was wiped away due to his four-year doping ban. Gatlin and Powell have gone separate directions since Gatlin’s comeback in 2010.

Powell has reportedly broken 10 seconds a total of 97 times since 2004, the most in history. But he’s never finished better than third at an Olympics or worlds. In Zurich, he’ll look to break 10 for the first time since this meet a year ago. Powell has broken 10 seconds in 13 straight years since 2004, if you include his 2013 results that were stricken due to doping. He’s running out of chances to keep the streak alive.

Men’s 5000m — 3:14 p.m.
Just 12 1/2 more laps for Farah, who may have revenge on his mind against Edris, the man who kept him from a winning goodbye and an 11th straight global distance title in the world 5000m two weeks ago.

Farah is trying to end his track career in a better way than many of the sport’s legends.

Bolt pulled up with an injury in his relay finale at worlds. Kenenisa Bekele, the 5000m and 10,000m world-record holder who is now a marathoner, failed to finish his last documented track race at Ethiopia’s Olympic Trials for Rio. Likewise, Haile Gebreselassie was seventh in his track finale at Ethiopia’s Olympic Trials in 2012.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

VIDEO: Ten memorable races from worlds