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“Ole is … the greatest Olympian”

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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.”

Reaction to Olympic ruling not to ban Russia

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MARCH 07:  The flag of Russia is raised during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games at Fisht Olympic Stadium on March 7, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
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MOSCOW (AP) — The International Olympic Committee has opted against imposing a blanket ban on the Russian team for next month’s games in Rio de Janeiro.

Meeting after World Anti-Doping Agency reports alleged widespread doping and state-backed cover-ups of failed drug tests by Russians, the IOC ruled that a ban across all sports would unjustly punish clean athletes in Russia.

However, the IOC has placed restrictions on the Russian team, including a measure barring the selection of any athletes who have previously served doping bans. It also set out eligibility criteria for the various international federations of Olympic sports.

Here is a look at the reaction in Russia and around the world:

“An athlete should not suffer and should not be sanctioned for a system in which he was not implicated and where he can show that he was not implicated…At the end of the day, we have to be able to look in the eye of the individual athletes concerned by this decision.” – IOC President Thomas Bach, a former Olympic fencer, tells reporters why the IOC did not impose a blanket ban on Russia.

“When a crime is committed, the guilty party is tried and punished, but you don’t put his family, friends and acquaintances behind bars just because they knew the criminal or they live in the same town.” – Russian Olympic Committee President Alexander Zhukov in an address to the IOC board ahead of its ruling not to impose a blanket ban.

“Many, including clean athletes and whistleblowers, have demonstrated courage and strength in confronting a culture of state-supported doping and corruption within Russia. Disappointingly, however, in response to the most important moment for clean athletes and the integrity of the Olympic Games, the IOC has refused to take decisive leadership. The decision regarding Russian participation and the confusing mess left in its wake is a significant blow to the rights of clean athletes.” – U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart.

“The IOC decision was to be expected. You can’t behave improperly toward a power like Russia.” – Gennady Alyoshin, a Russian Olympic Committee official, in comments to Tass.

“We are grateful to the IOC for allowing Russian athletes in. I’m sure that the majority of the Russian national team will be able to comply with the criteria.” – Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko.

“Well, that’s the IOC board off my Xmas card list then,” – Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford of Britain on Twitter.

“We have created and been through the process. We know how hard it is emotionally and rationally to get the process right… We continue to stand by to assist and offer advice to any international sports federations.” Sebastian Coe, head of track and field’s governing body, the IAAF, which barred all but one Russian athlete.

“Raising her to the status of a hero is like stupidly spitting in all our faces. So it’s right that she can’t compete at the Olympics. At least one wise decision on track and field has been taken.” – Two-time Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva discusses the IOC’s refusal to let doping whistleblower Yulia Stepanova race in Rio, in comments to R-Sport.

MORE: IOC will not enforce complete ban on Russia for Rio Olympics

IOC will not enforce complete ban on Russia for Rio Olympics

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 27:  Maria Sharapova of the Russia Olympic tennis team carries her country's flag during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on July 27, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — Rejecting calls by anti-doping officials for a complete ban on Russia, Olympic leaders on Sunday gave individual global sports federations the task of deciding which athletes should be cleared to compete in next month’s Rio de Janeiro Games.

Citing the need to protect the rights of individual athletes, the International Olympic Committee decided against taking the unprecedented step of excluding Russia’s entire team over allegations of state-sponsored doping. Instead, the IOC left it to 27 sports federations to make the call on a case-by-case basis.

“Every human being is entitled to individual justice,” IOC President Thomas Bach said after the ruling of his 15-member executive board.

At the same time, Bach said the IOC had decided on a set of “very tough criteria” that could dent Russia’s overall contingent and medal hopes in Rio, where the Olympics will open on Aug. 5.

Under the measures, no Russian athletes who have ever had a doping violation will be allowed into the games, whether or not they have served a sanction, a rule that has not applied to athletes in other countries.

In addition, the international sports federations were ordered to check each Russian athlete’s drug-testing record, with only doping controls conducted outside Russia counting toward eligibility, before authorizing them to compete. Final entry is contingent on approval from an independent sports arbitrator.

The IOC decision was sharply criticized by anti-doping bodies as a sellout that undermines clean athletes and destroys the idea of a level playing field.

“In response to the most important moment for clean athletes and the integrity of the Olympic Games, the IOC has refused to take decisive leadership,” U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement.

“The decision regarding Russian participation and the confusing mess left in its wake is a significant blow to the rights of clean athletes.”

Russia’s track and field athletes were already banned by the IAAF, the sport’s governing body, in a decision that was upheld Thursday by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The IOC accepted that ruling, but would not extend it to all other sports. Russia’s current overall team consists of 387 athletes, a number likely to be significantly reduced by the measure barring Russians who have previously served doping bans.

Calls for a complete ban on Russia intensified after Richard McLaren, a Canadian lawyer commissioned by WADA, issued a report Monday accusing Russia’s sports ministry of overseeing a vast doping program of its Olympic athletes.

McLaren’s investigation, based heavily on evidence from former Moscow doping lab director Grigory Rodchenkov, affirmed allegations of brazen manipulation of Russian urine samples at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, but also found that state-backed doping had involved 28 summer and winter sports from 2011 to 2015.

“An athlete should not suffer and should not be sanctioned for a system in which he was not implicated,” Bach told reporters on a conference call after Sunday’s meeting. “It is fine to talk about collective responsibility and banning everybody, but at the end of the day we have to be able to look in the eyes of the individual athletes concerned by this decision,”

Bach acknowledged the decision “might not please everybody.”

“This is not about expectations,” he said. “This is about doing justice to clean athletes all over the world.”

Asked whether the IOC was being soft on Russia, Bach said: “Read the decision. … You can see how high we set the bar. This is not the end of the story but a preliminary decision that concerns Rio 2016.”

Tygart, however, questioned why the IOC “would pass the baton to sports federations who may lack the adequate expertise or collective will to appropriately address the situation within the short window prior to the games.”

The IOC also rejected the application by Russian whistleblower Yulia Stepanova, an 800-meter runner and former doper who helped expose the doping scandal in her homeland, to compete under a neutral flag at the games. Stepanova, now living in the United States, competed as an individual athlete at last month’s European Championships in Amsterdam.

But the IOC said Stepanova did not meet the criteria for running under the IOC flag and, because she had been previously banned for doping, did not satisfy the “ethical requirements” to compete in the games. However, the IOC added that it would invite Stepanova and her husband, Vitaly Stepanov, a former Russian anti-doping official who also turned whistleblower, to attend the games.

Tygart expressed dismay at the decision to bar Stepanova.

“The decision to refuse her entry into the games is incomprehensible and will undoubtedly deter whistleblowers in the future from coming forward,” he said.

That means only one Russian track athlete is eligible to compete in Rio: U.S.-based long jumper Darya Klishina was granted exceptional eligibility by the IAAF because she has been tested outside of Russia.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said “the majority” of Russia’s team complies with the IOC criteria and will be able to compete. About “80 percent” of the Russian team regularly undergoes international testing of the kind specified by the IOC, he said.

International federations will have only days to process the Russian cases, and some have little experience in handling doping matters. Many are still waiting for information from McLaren’s report. The International Tennis Federation, however, said Sunday that Russia’s eight-person tennis team meets the requirements as the players have been through regular international testing.

Sunday’s measures are still a blow to Russia, an Olympic powerhouse which finished third in total medals at the 2012 London Games.

The team could be without some of its star names in Rio because of the IOC measure barring any Russians who have previously served doping bans. However, the impact on the Russian medal tally is likely to be less severe than the damage caused by the earlier ban on its track team, Russia’s most successful contingent in London four years ago.

Among those set to be ruled out are swimmer Yulia Efimova, the world 100-meter breaststroke champion; 2012 Olympic silver medal-winning weightlifter Tatyana Kashirina; and two-time Olympic bronze medal-winning cyclist Olga Zabelinskaya. All three have previously served doping bans.

Russian Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov presented his case to the IOC board at the beginning of Sunday’s meeting, promising full cooperation with investigations and guaranteeing “a complete and comprehensive restructuring of the Russian anti-doping system.”

He issued a strong plea against a full ban.

“My question is this: If you treat the cancer by cutting off the patient’s head and killing him, do you consider this as a victory in the fight?” he said in remarks released later. “That does not seem like a victory to me. But that is what is happening right now, as dozens of clean athletes are forced to miss the Olympic Games through no fault of their own.”

In its decision, the IOC also:

– asked the federations to examine the information and names of athletes and sports implicated in the McLaren report. Any of those implicated should not be allowed into the games, it said.

– said the federations would have to apply their own rules if they want to ban an entire Russian team from their events in Rio, as the IAAF has already done for track and field.

– said Russian entries must be examined and upheld by an expert from the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

– ruled that Russian athletes who are cleared for the games will be subjected to a “rigorous additional out-of-competition testing program.”

The IOC also reiterated its “serious concerns” about the weaknesses in the fight against doping, and called on WADA to “fully review their anti-doping systems.” The IOC said it would propose measures for more transparency and independence.

MORE: Russia loses Olympic track and field ban appeal