“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.”

Final World Cup Alpine skiing races canceled

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ARE, Sweden (AP) — Viktoria Rebensburg won her third season title in the giant slalom on Sunday without hitting the slopes at the World Cup finals.

Strong winds forced the cancellation of the season-ending GS while the German skier led the standings by 92 points from world champion Tessa Worley of France, who won the title last season. With a win worth 100 points, Rebensburg was a strong pre-race favorite to wrap up the title.

The last men’s slalom was also canceled, but that didn’t affect the final standings because Marcel Hirscher had already locked up the overall and discipline titles two weeks ago.

Both races were called off shortly before their respective starts as gusts made conditions on the hill potentially unsafe for the skiers. According to FIS rules, events at World Cup finals cannot be rescheduled.

Rebensburg, the Olympic GS gold medalist in 2010, also won the World Cup GS title in 2010-11 and 2011-12.

“It’s really something special. It’s been a few years now since my last globe. I am very proud that I managed to win it again,” said Rebensburg, who struggled with injuries in recent seasons.

She ruptured ligaments in her left knee three years ago and fractured the tibial plateau in her right leg just before the start of last season.

“Every globe has a special meaning but this one is more emotional because of the time in-between,” Rebensburg said. “I know what’s behind winning a globe. You have to be consistent throughout a whole season.”

In the overall standings, Rebensburg finished third behind winner Mikaela Shiffrin and runner-up Wendy Holdener of Switzerland.

Shiffrin, who had secured her second straight overall title last week, wrote on Twitter that she agreed with the decision to call off the last event of the season.

“Ahhhhhhh shoot! The race is canceled! But it’s really windy up here so probably a good call,” the American said.

Shiffrin finished the season on 1,773 points, 130 more than last season when she won her maiden overall title. Holdener was the only other skier to gather more than 1,000 points this season — 1,168.

The men’s overall champion also applauded the cancellation.

“If you see the wind and how the slalom gates are moving, you don’t have to talk about a fair race or a quality race,” said Hirscher, who missed out on the chance to set a World Cup record by winning his 14th race of the season.

“That’s not the important thing,” he said. “It’s the right decision.”

After the cancellation of the women’s race, Manuela Moelgg announced her retirement after 18 seasons on the circuit. The Italian veteran secured 14 podiums, including three third-place finishes this season, but failed to win a race in 283 World Cup starts.

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Declan Farmer heroics lift U.S. to Paralympic hockey title in OT (video)

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Declan Farmer tied the Paralympic hockey final with 37.8 seconds to play, then scored the golden goal 3:30 into overtime to lift the U.S. over Canada 2-1 for gold on Sunday.

“It’s all a blur at the moment,” said Farmer, a 20-year-old Princeton student, “but when it comes back I will remember this day for the rest of my life.”

Farmer’s heroics gave the U.S. a third straight Paralympic title. No other nation has won two Paralympic golds in seven total tournaments.

The U.S. also finished the Winter Paralympics with the most medals (36) and most gold medals (13) for the first time since Albertville 1992.


When Farmer made a move seconds before scoring the tying goal, with the U.S. having pulled goalie Steve Cash, teammate and captain Josh Pauls thought to himself, “This is Declan Farmer time.” Farmer’s goal was the first allowed by Canada at the tournament, the shutout streak ending after 224 minutes.

Thirty seconds earlier, Canada’s Rob Armstrong had a chance to clinch gold on the empty net, but hit the post from an angle.

Farmer tallied a tournament-leading 11 goals and 17 points in his second Winter Games. His 14 career Paralympic goals are a U.S. record.

Last year, Farmer broke U.S. records for most goals (12) and points (18) at a world championship tournament, though Canada beat the U.S. in that final. He was born a bilateral amputee and started playing sled hockey at age 9.

Cash, who stopped 11 of 12 Canadian shots for his third Paralympic title, told Farmer after Sunday’s game that he was his hero.

“He’s the best overall sled hockey player to ever play the game,” Cash said, according to TeamUSA.org.

The U.S. dedicated its tournament to its 2014 Paralympic coach, Jeff Sauer, who died of pancreatic cancer in February 2017.

“Coach Sauer is watching over us,” Farmer said.

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