“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.”

Ten swimmers to watch at USA Swimming National Championships

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The U.S. team for the world swimming championships will be determined this week, and it’s going to include some new faces.

Absent are the retired Michael Phelps and Maya DiRado, suspended Ryan Lochte and recovering Missy Franklin.

Katie Ledecky is the headliner, but there are of course many others who will emerge this week as medal favorites for Budapest next month.

The top two per individual event at the USA Swimming National Championships, part of the TeamUSA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast, are in line to make the world team. Plus extra swimmers in the 100m and 200m frees for relays.

MORE: Broadcast Schedule | Event Schedule/Results

Here are 10 swimmers to watch in Indianapolis from Tuesday through Saturday:

Mallory Comerford
No Olympic experience

The rising Louisville junior tied Katie Ledecky for the NCAA 200-yard freestyle title on March 17. Remember, Ledecky is undefeated in 15 individual finals at the Olympics, World Championships and Pan Pacific Championships. It was all the more surprising given Comerford, who is five months younger than Ledecky, was 12th and 13th in the 100m and 200m frees at the Olympic Trials. She enters nationals ranked Nos. 2 and 5 in the 100m and 200m freestyles, respectively.

Madisyn Cox
No Olympic experience

Cox is the best all-around female swimmer in the U.S. aside from Ledecky. She ranks second this year in both individual medleys and the 200m breaststroke. The former University of Texas standout is the direct beneficiary of Ledecky opting not to swim the 400m IM on Thursday, given Ledecky is fastest in the U.S. this year in that event. Cox was fourth in both IMs at the Olympic Trials.

Lilly King
Olympic 100m breast champion

Best known for finger-wagging Yuliya Efimova and then beating the Russian in Rio. King actually ranks No. 2 — in the U.S. — this year in the 100m breast behind Rio bronze medalist Katie Meili. Meili has also been 2.72 seconds faster than King this year in the 200m breast, an event King is trying to improve after being eliminated in the Olympic semifinals.

Katie Ledecky
Five-time Olympic champion

It would be shocking if Ledecky does not win the 200m, 400m, 800m and (if she races it) 1500m frees this week. The intrigue comes in the 100m free, which Ledecky did not contest at this meet four years ago. She lowered her 100m free personal best from 56.00 to 53.75 in the last four years and enters Tuesday’s event ranked No. 5 in the U.S. this year (same as her ranking last year). No doubt Ledecky has the talent to make the 4x100m free relay at worlds (as she did at the Olympics), but could she make the 100m free team outright by finishing top two?

Simone Manuel
Four-time Rio Olympic medalist

Manuel is comfortably the fastest U.S. woman this year in the 50m and 100m frees, where she earned silver and gold in Rio. She’s also ranked No. 4 in the 200m free, and only .18 behind No. 2, after handing Ledecky two defeats in the NCAA 200-yard free this past season.

Michael Andrew
No Olympic experience

Andrew, who turned professional at age 14 in 2013, is entered in nine events this week. No way he swims them all, but could this be the year Andrew fulfills promise and makes his first major international meet? He ranks fourth in the 50m free and third in the 200m individual medley nationally this year but has been best known in recent years for his breaststroke. His best Olympic Trials finish was fourth in the 100m breast.

Caeleb Dressel
Olympic 4x100m free relay champion

Dressel memorably delievered under pressure in Rio, setting a personal best in his first Olympic swim leading off the 4x100m free relay final. Dressel went even faster in his three 100m free swims, placing sixth overall. At age 20, Dressel already holds NCAA records in the 50- and 100-yard frees, plus the 100-yard butterfly. Is he ready to overtake Nathan Adrian as the top U.S. sprinter?

Anthony Ervin
Two-time Olympic 50m free champion

At 36, Ervin is the oldest swimmer at nationals by three years. He defied age most recently in Rio, becoming the oldest individual Olympic swimming champion in winning the 50m freestyle a whopping 16 years after sharing gold in the event in Sydney. Ervin hasn’t shown that kind of form this year. He ranks No. 16 in the U.S. in the 50m free.

Chase Kalisz
Olympic 400m IM silver medalist

No U.S. male swimmer has been more impressive this season than Kalisz. In a three-day span in May, he set personal bests in the 200m IM and the 200m breaststroke, swam the second-best 200m butterfly of his life and posted the then-fastest time in the world this year in the 400m IM. Kalisz is entered in three events this week and owns the fastest time in the U.S. this year in all of them — 200m and 400m IM and 200m butterfly.

Ryan Murphy
Three-time Rio Olympic champion

Murphy may have swept the backstrokes in Rio, but he is ranked second in the country this year in the 100m and 200m distances. London Olympic champion Matt Grevers has been faster in the 100m back. Rio Olympic teammate Jacob Pebley tops the 200m back. Still, it would be a shock to not see Murphy swimming both in Budapest, plus perhaps the 50m back.

MORE: King to be less vocal on Efimova topic this summer

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Tori Bowie does not want to double at world champs

Leave a comment

Add Tori Bowie to the list of sprinters not looking to double at the world championships in August.

Bowie won the 100m and finished third in the 200m at the USATF Outdoor Championships, part of the TeamUSA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast.

That put her on the U.S. team for worlds in London in both sprints.

But Bowie, who earned Rio 100m silver and 200m bronze, was exhausted after four days of racing in Sacramento heat that eclipsed 110 degrees.

“I for sure don’t want to do the double [at worlds],” Bowie said Sunday. “I just wanted to give myself an option [to race the 100m or the 200m].”

Bowie said she and her coaches will probably decide her racing schedule for worlds in the next two to three weeks.

“More than anything I wanted to try to get this 100m right and try to achieve a gold medal somewhere,” Bowie said, according to TeamUSA.org. “I don’t have a gold medal yet individually, so that’s my main concern right now.”

If Bowie drops the 100m, Olympian Morolake Akinosun is in line to take her spot. If she drops the 200m, it’s Ariana Washington.

“I already experienced that, I did the double in Rio,” Bowie said. “I collected my two medals that I wanted to collect in both events. Right now, I’m satisfied.”

Deajah Stevens and Christian Coleman also made the U.S. team in both the 100m and 200m and are expected to compete in both events.

Meanwhile, both Olympic 200m champions — Usain Bolt and Elaine Thompson — are expected to sit out the 200m in London to focus on the 100m.

World 200m silver medalist Justin Gatlin, 2012 Olympic 200m champion Allyson Felix and LaShawn Merritt all pulled out of the 200m at USATF Outdoors, ruling out world championships doubles.

Gatlin doubled in 2015. Felix doubled in 2011 (200m and 400m) and tried to for Rio but finished fourth in the 200m at the Olympic Trials. Merritt raced the 200m and 400m in Rio.

Both Olympic 400m champions — Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa and Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas — plan to also race the 200m at worlds.

MORE: Centrowitz recovers from ‘rock bottom’ to make world team

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!