“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.”

Diana Taurasi says 2024 Paris Olympics ‘on my radar’

Diana Taurasi
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Diana Taurasi said immediately after winning her fifth Olympic gold medal in Tokyo that she might try for a record sixth in Paris.

It’s still on her mind 17 months out of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“It’s something that it’s on my radar,” Taurasi told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday after the first day of a USA Basketball training camp in Minnesota, her first national team activity since Tokyo. “I’m still competitive, still driven, still want to play, I still love being a part of USA Basketball.”

Taurasi will be 42 at the time of the Paris Games — older than any previous Olympic basketball player — but said if she’s healthy enough she’d like to give it a go.

“If the opportunity comes to play and be a part of it, it’s something I’ve always taken a lot of pride in,” said Taurasi, who shares the record of five Olympic basketball gold medals with the retired Sue Bird. “When you get to my age at this point in my career, you just try to win every day. Right now this is a good opportunity to be part of this team moving forward we’ll see what happens.”

She said she would have played at the FIBA World Cup last year in Australia, but had a quad strain that kept her out of the end of the WNBA season.

“I got hurt a little bit before. I had a good conversation with Coach (Cheryl) Reeve and (USA Basketball CEO Jim) Tooley. I felt like I hadn’t played enough basketball to be out there and help,” Taurasi said. “That’s the biggest thing with USA Basketball is being able to help the team win.”

Reeve said Monday that when she succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach a few months after Tokyo, she wasn’t sure whether Taurasi would play for the national team again. That was before her conversation with Taurasi.

“I look forward to having a chance to have her be around and be, as I told her, a great voice,” Reeve said. “Obviously, the competitive fire that she competes with is something that we all do well with.”

In Tokyo, Taurasi started all six games and averaged 18.8 minutes per game, sixth-most on the team (fewer than backup guard Chelsea Gray). Her 5.8 points per game were her fewest in her Olympic career, though she was dealing with a hip injury.

Taurasi is an unrestricted free agent although she is expected to return back to Phoenix where she’s spent her entire career since getting drafted No. 1 overall in 2003.

“Phoenix still has things they need to work out,” the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer said.

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Alexis Pinturault wins world championships combined; American in fourth

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France’s Alexis Pinturault won the world Alpine skiing championships combined at his home venue after defending world champion Marco Schwarz blew a lead in the final seconds of his slalom run.

Pinturault, a 31-year-old who hadn’t won a race in nearly two years (the longest drought of his distinguished career), prevailed by one tenth of a second over the Austrian Schwarz in Courchevel, France.

“I hope to enjoy it because it was pretty difficult some months ago,” Pinturault said.

Austrian Raphael Haaser took bronze in an event that combined times from a morning super-G run and an afternoon slalom run, one day after his older sister took bronze in the women’s combined.

River Radamus was fourth, a quarter of a second from becoming the first U.S. man to win an Alpine worlds medal since 2015. Radamus’ best event is the giant slalom, which is scheduled for Feb. 17 at worlds.

“It’s nice, but honestly, you don’t come to world championships hoping to get fourth,” Radamus said.

Five skiers finished within 2.98 seconds of the winner in an event that has been dropped from the annual World Cup schedule and is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

ALPINE WORLDS: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Pinturault had the fastest super-G run by six hundredths over Schwarz. Schwarz, a slightly better slalom skier than Pinturault, erased that deficit early in the slalom and had a three tenths lead at the last intermediate split.

He gave it all away about six gates from the finish, slamming on the brakes. Moments later, he crossed the finish line one tenth behind Pinturault, who reacted by pumping his fists in the air.

The Frenchman earned his first race victory since the March 2021 World Cup Finals giant slalom, where he clinched his first World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. Last season, Pinturault went winless on the World Cup for the first time since he was a teenage rookie in 2011, plus went medal-less at the Olympics.

Pinturault, who grew up in Courchevel and now co-owns the family’s five-star Hotel Annapurna there, had retirement cross his mind in the offseason, according to Eurosport. He skipped a pre-worlds Sunday press conference due to illness.

Nonetheless, Pinturault was on the front page of French newspapers this week, including L’Equipe on Tuesday. In a sports cover story for Le Figaro, Pinturault said that, given the circumstances, it would be almost a “nice surprise” to go for a medal at these worlds.

Olympic champion Johannes Strolz of Austria skied out of the slalom after tying for 29th in the super-G.

Olympic silver and bronze medalists Aleksander Aamodt Kilde of Norway and Jack Crawford of Canada were among the speed specialists who did not start the slalom. They essentially used the event as a training run for Thursday’s super-G.

Worlds continue Wednesday with the women’s super-G, where Mikaela Shiffrin is a medal contender but not the favorite. She can tie the modern-era records for individual world championships gold medals (seven) and total medals (12).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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