“Ole is … the greatest Olympian”


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.”

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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.”

Ted Ligety recovers for fifth place in return from torn ACL

SOELDEN, AUSTRIA - OCTOBER 23: Ted Ligety of USA in action during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Men's Giant Slalom on October 23, 2016 in Soelden, Austria (Photo by Alain Grosclaude/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
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SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — For once, Ted Ligety could live with finishing fifth in an event he had won four times in the previous five years.

At least he’s back racing again.

The Olympic and world giant slalom champion returned to the Alpine skiing World Cup on Sunday, nine months after tearing the ACL in his right knee in a training accident.

In 14th place and 1.49 seconds off the lead after the opening run, Ligety vastly improved in the second and climbed nine spots in the traditional first race of the season on a mountain glacier in the Austrian Alps.

“I am not here to get 10th place. Even though that wouldn’t be a horrible result for the first time back, I like to be challenging for a podium,” Ligety told The Associated Press between runs.

He came 1.65 behind the dominant winner, Alexis Pinturault of France, but the result made him smile.

“I’m definitely happy with fifth place to start it off with,” Ligety said. “In the second run I charged a little harder. I skied well, for sure. I definitely felt a little bit more confident than in the first run where I was on the conservative side.”

The knee injury occurred in Germany in January. By that time, “my season was already messed up from smaller injuries, anyway” as he dealt with back and hip ailments.

After his season got off to a strong start by winning in Soelden and coming runner-up in a super-G in Beaver Creek, Colorado, in early December, the physical troubles took their toll and he failed to finish most races.

The training crash then caused the first season-ending injury in his 13-year-old career.

“During the first couple of weeks, watching races on the couch was less than fun, and a couple of weeks later watching races on the spinning bike was even less fun,” Ligety said. “But it makes you hungry to race again, too.”

The American called himself “lucky that there was no more damage” because “an ACL is a pretty straight forward thing” which many skiers have to deal with in their careers.

“You’re more likely to win an Olympic gold medal in skiing if you have had an ACL so I am joining a better statistical group now,” he joked.

Physically fit again but with less training on snow than usual, Ligety returned to the mountain in Austria where he won a record five times in total, most recently a year ago for the last of his 25 World Cup victories.

“My knee doesn’t bother me at all skiing, it’s just about finding that next high speed gear. I am not there yet but I am happy to race.”

Usually an all-round competitor, Ligety will first try to regain his old strength in GS before getting other disciplines back onto his schedule.

He planned to do some super-G races but could well stay away from what used to be his strongest discipline when he entered the World Cup in 2003 — the slalom. This summer, he trained in that discipline only for one day.

“The last couple of years, slalom has not been such a good return on investment for me so I’m not really putting too much into that,” he said. “I’ll ski some slaloms if it works out schedule-wise and training-wise.”

Though his chances to win an overall World Cup title one day are decreasing, the 32-year-old double Olympic champion has enough ambitions left.

“Like every year, the giant slalom globe is the big goal,” said Ligety, who won the prize for the best skier in the discipline five times. “Obviously this year I don’t have the same awesome prep period and miles as I would normally. The world champs (in Switzerland in February) is coming up also and it would be nice to defend the GS title again.”


Gracie Gold details weight issues in figure skating after Skate America struggles

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Gracie Gold said she has struggled with weight issues this whole year and in recent seasons in reported comments after she finished fifth at Skate America on Saturday.

“You don’t often see — there aren’t that many — you just don’t see overweight figure skaters for a reason,” Gold said, according to USA Today. “It’s just something I’ve struggled with this whole year and in previous seasons. It’s just difficult when you’re trying to do the difficult triple jumps. It’s something that I am addressing, but it’s obviously not where it should be for this caliber of competition.

“It’s just not what’s required for this sport. It’s a lean body sport, and it’s just not what I have currently.”

Gold fell once in her Skate America short program and twice in her free skate en route to her lowest Grand Prix finish (excluding Grand Prix Finals) since her debut at 2012 Skate Canada.

Gold also finished sixth out of six skaters in her first competition this season, the free-skate-only Japan Open on Oct. 1.

Gold was fourth at the world championships in April, falling from first after the short program. The U.S. champion was still dealing with that “worlds depression” in the summer, even considering skipping the fall Grand Prix season.

Her next scheduled competition is in three weeks at Trophée de France in Paris, which she won last season.

“We just need to adjust my physical shape and mental shape and see if the program can be salvaged for the rest of the year,” Gold said, according to

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