“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.”

World Figure Skating Championships women’s preview

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Ashley Wagner has not watched any of Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva‘s programs this season, but this much Wagner knows without looking:

“She is technically flawless, and if there is an athlete that we should be chasing, obviously it’s Yevgenia,” Wagner said.

Medvedeva, a 17-year-old from Moscow, is the biggest favorite across all four disciplines at next week’s world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

Ashley Wagner is the 2016 World silver medalist, the first U.S. woman on the podium in 10 years, but it would be shocking if she upgrades to gold next week. Realistically, she’s at best fighting for a silver or bronze along with Russians Anna Pogorilaya and Maria Sotskova, Canadians Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman, Italian Carolina Kostner and Japan’s Mai Mihara.

Medvedeva is in her own class.

Undefeated since November 2015. Winner of her last 11 events in her first two seasons at the senior level. She can become the first woman to repeat as world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001.

In fact, another gold would give Medvedeva the most dominant two-season stretch by a female skater since Katarina Witt‘s stronghold in the mid-1980s.

“I really appreciate her in the sport because she is a set bar that everybody is chasing after, and I think in years past that bar was always changing,” Wagner said.

What sets Medvedeva apart is that she has been polished, from her triple-triple jump combinations and spins to her performance quality, since turning 16 in her senior debut season a year ago.

And her consistency. All other recent Russian stars — 2014 Olympic champions Adelina Sotnikova and Yulia Lipnitskaya and 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva — simply could not put together two straight world-class seasons at the senior level.

Given that history, Wagner is not fully sold on Medvedeva.

“Time will tell,” said Wagner, who has joked that she needs to skate like “a robot” to compete with Medvedeva. “She is not part of this normal cycle of Russian athletes. I feel like they have one or two seasons of dominance, and then they kind of disappear. So we will see what happens to her, but she seems to be going very strong.”

Medvedeva, whose mom was a skater, started in the sport at age 3, inspired like many by the great Yevgeny Plushenko.

Figure skating is popular and storied in Russia, but Medvedeva is rarely recognized back home, where she still spends weekends watching cartoons. She does have more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram, though.

Medvedeva’s scores from her four international competitions this season are the four highest scores in the world, all above 220 points. This despite falling at one competition, having one jump called under-rotated at another and stepping out of a landing at another.

Nobody else in the next week’s field has cracked 217 points — in their careers.

At December’s Russian Championships, Medvedeva added a second triple toe loop onto a triple Salchow-triple toe loop combination, knowing she would get zero points for the superfluous jump. She did it three minutes into her free skate (with controversial music from a film about Sept. 11, 2001), when most skaters would be tired.

Medvedeva has shown disappointment when not breaking records and talked about adding a quadruple Salchow to her arsenal. She speaks some English in interviews, even though she hasn’t taken English classes in two years, according to Icenetwork.

“Sometimes I feel like I am two people: the grown-up and the kid,” she said in the fall, according to Icenetwork. “The first one is able to understand and execute difficult programs, while the other one is just like … watching cartoons all the time!”

Medvedeva was last outscored in the short program at last year’s world championships in Boston. She placed third behind Gracie Gold and Pogorilaya, with Wagner in fourth.

In the free skate, Medvedeva and Wagner climbed to gold and silver, respectively. Wagner tallied personal bests for both programs at the 2016 Worlds, yet still finished 7.47 points behind Medvedeva.

Wagner has been unable to replicate those kinds of skates this season. In two international events, her best total is 196.44 points, which seeds her eighth going into worlds. She was also beaten by surprise Karen Chen at the U.S. Championships in January.

“This year is not the year I’m planning on peaking,” Wagner said. “Next year is the year that I am like in it to kill. … This year is my chance to work out all of the kinks, figure out where I want to be mentally going into next year and even though to some on the outside looking in, it wouldn’t look like it was the most successful season for me. I think at the end of the day this season has been exactly what I needed it to be.”

As noted, the pressure is on Wagner to lead an inexperienced U.S. team of three women in Helsinki. She’ll be joined by training partner Mariah Bell and Chen. The two worlds rookies have been less impressive than Wagner internationally this season. They’re seeded 10th and 16th.

The two best results out of Wagner, Chen and Bell must add up to no more than 13, or else the U.S. will only get two women’s spots at the Olympics for the second time in the last six Winter Games.

There is an outside chance of a Russian sweep, given the second-best skater this season, Japan’s Satoko Miyahara, withdrew due to injury. Pogorilaya, the 2016 World bronze medalist, has the next two highest scores this season after Medvedeva and Miyahara.

Russia also has Sotskova, the most impressive of the first-year senior skaters.

The experienced category is led by Osmond, having her best results since debuting as a senior in 2012, and Kostner, the six-time world medalist back after two years off. They’re seeded third and fourth.

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U.S. women’s hockey players show solildarity in portraits

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The U.S. women’s hockey team is … family, powerful, united, strong, brave, together, limitless, fierce, bold, historic, ambitious, resilient, fearless and devoted.

All 23 players on the U.S. roster planning to boycott the world championship that starts in one week posted portraits on Twitter on Friday morning. Each player held a paper with a one-word descriptor.

The players plan to boycott the world championship tournament in Plymouth, Mich., unless their wage dispute with USA Hockey is settled.

The players believed they reached an agreement with USA Hockey in a 10-hour-plus meeting Monday, but USA Hockey’s later counter offer “didn’t reflect the progress of the negotiations,” according to the players’ representatives.

USA Hockey said Thursday that it will start reaching out to potential replacement players, but it still hopes to come to an agreement to field its original team in Plymouth.

“As we have maintained from the beginning, this issue is about more than the compensation of the current team: it’s about equitable treatment for female players now and in the future,” the players said in a statement Thursday. “A forward-looking agreement will benefit the next generation of players even more than the current players. For that reason, and the fact that the younger players identify with us, we are confident that they [potential replacement players] would choose not to play.”

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