The king misses … (but Ole Einar Bjoerndalen’s record pursuit isn’t over)


KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The pursuit continues for Ole Einar Bjoerndalen.

In agonizingly close fashion, the man they call the Biathlon King failed to break the record for most career Winter Olympic medals on Monday night.

His performance, though, was every bit what you’ve come to expect from one of history’s greatest Olympians.

Bjoerndalen, 40, finished fourth for the first time in 23 career Olympic races in the 12.5km pursuit won by flamboyant Frenchman Martin Fourcade. Bjoerndalen missed capturing his 13th career Olympic medal by 1.7 seconds, also the closest margin from which he’s missed an Olympic podium.

It was a heartbreaking result for the flag-waving Norwegian throng that trekked to the Laura Biathlon Stadium hoping to witness history.

Bjoerndalen shrugged.

“Fourth place is OK,” he said amid drips of drizzle afterward.

Bjoerndalen spoke with the patience of a man who knows more medals are on the way in relays next week. Two nights earlier, Bjoerndalen stunned by winning the opening 10km sprint for his 12th career medal and seventh gold.

He entered Sochi a contender for silvers or bronzes individually but was no longer Norway’s best biathlete, let alone the world’s. It was thought he would have to wait until next week’s relays to become the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time. The record is held by his friend, 1990s Norwegian cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie, who won 12 medals and eight golds.

Bjoerndalen’s sprint victory Saturday, witnessed in person by Daehlie, gave him a head start in the pursuit Monday. Biathletes begin the pursuit staggered based on their finish in the sprint.

Bjoerndalen won the sprint by one second over Austrian Dominik Landertinger, so he wore the No. 1 bib and skied out of the start in front of the field under the lights. Landertinger followed one second later, and so on and so on. First man to the finish wins.

The 12.5km pursuit consists of five 2.5km loops and four bouts of shooting, the first two prone and the last two standing. Clean shooting is a must, hitting all five circular targets from 50m away per shooting station. The targets are just shy of 2 inches wide for prone and 4.5 inches for standing. Each miss costs a skier 20 to 30 seconds in a 150m penalty loop over a 34-minute race.

Biathletes ski mostly outside view of the main stadium stands. The crowd watches on a jumbo screen next to the shooting range and cheers wildly when the biathletes ski into the stadium for their shooting. That’s when the in-race standings become clear.

On Monday, heart-pounding instrumental music, such as Two Steps from Hell’s “Black Blade,” played throughout the half-hour. Biathlon is bigger in Russia than Norway, so more cheers were directed toward native son Anton Shipulin than Bjoerndalen, despite the shot at history.

Bjoerndalen entered the stadium for the first round of shooting in the lead group and shot clean. But he would miss once in each of the next three rounds, costing him more than one minute of time in penalty loops.

Nobody else who finished in the top seven had more than one miss. That Bjoerndalen stayed in the medal hunt despite poor shooting was a testament to his incredible skiing, even at age 40.

Fourcade missed once but went clean in the final round to clinch his gold, pumping his arms toward the crowd and eventually blowing a kiss as he crossed the finish line for his first Olympic gold. Czech Ondrej Moravec came in 14 seconds later. He went 20 for 20 shooting after starting 15 seconds behind Bjoerndalen due to their results from Saturday.

The battle was for bronze. It came down to France’s Jean Guillame Beatrix and Bjoerndalen.

Beatrix started 39 seconds after Bjoerndalen but had moved 9.6 seconds ahead with 1.6km of skiing left (or one mile). Beatrix, 25, is in his first Olympics.

“I was aware of the situation thanks to the big screen in the stadium,” Beatrix said. “I had the situation under control.”

Still, Bjoerndalen spent the next three minutes reeling in the youngster and entered the stadium one final time seemingly within striking distance.

But the King missed.

It was apparent on the final straightaway he wouldn’t have enough to pass the Frenchman. Bjoerndalen crossed the finish and collapsed to the snow in exhaustion, customary in biathlon and cross-country skiing. Bjoerndalen said he thought he could catch Beatrix, but that he started his final kick too late. Even the greats make mistakes.

“I’m really sad about that,” Bjoerndalen said.

The shooting was what cost him.

“One miss too much,” Bjoerndalen said. “You need to hit almost everything if you want to win.”

Bjoerndalen didn’t dwell on spending another night tied with Daehlie in total medals and one behind in golds. He said he doesn’t feel pressure this close to the solo records.

“Medals is one part of the Olympics,” said Bjoerndalen, who is in the running for a spot on the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission to be voted on by athletes competing at these Games.

Nor did he use his age as an excuse. He has two more individual events left in addition to the relays. The next is Thursday.

“When I won gold two days ago my age wasn’t a problem,” he said. “I was fighting [Monday], and that was most important.”

Football takes significant step in Olympic push

Flag Football
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Football took another step toward possible Olympic inclusion with the IOC executive board proposing that the sport’s international federation — the IFAF — be granted full IOC recognition at a meeting in October.

IOC recognition does not equate to eventual Olympic inclusion, but it is a necessary early marker if a sport is to join the Olympics down the line. The IOC gave the IFAF provisional recognition in 2013.

Specific measures are required for IOC recognition, including having an anti-doping policy compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency and having 50 affiliated national federations from at least three continents. The IFAF has 74 national federations over five continents with almost 4.8 million registered athletes, according to the IOC.

The NFL has helped lead the push for flag football to be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games. Flag football had medal events for men and women at last year’s World Games, a multi-sport competition including Olympic and non-Olympic sports, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Football is one of nine sports that have been reported to be in the running to be proposed by LA 2028 to the IOC to be added for the 2028 Games only. LA 2028 has not announced which, if any sports, it plans to propose.

Under rules instituted before the Tokyo Games, Olympic hosts have successfully proposed to the IOC adding sports solely for their edition of the Games.

For Tokyo, baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were added. For Paris, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were approved again, and breaking will make its Olympic debut. Those sports were added four years out from the Games.

For 2028, the other sports reportedly in the running for proposal are baseball and softball, breaking, cricket, karate, kickboxing, lacrosse, motorsports and squash.

All of the other eight sports reportedly in the running for 2028 proposal already have a federation with full IOC recognition (if one counts the international motorcycle racing federation for motorsports).

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt

One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. It is produced by Religion of Sports, the venture founded by Gotham Chopra, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!