No easy answer (or end) to “greatest Olympian” debate

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen
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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – What makes somebody the greatest Olympian?

That question’s been posed at the last two Olympics.

In 2012, Michael Phelps passed Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina for the most career Olympic medals, finishing with 22.

Phelps had already set the gold standard at the 2008 Olympics (he has 18 golds now, twice as many as anyone else), a stat that’s more important in Europe, where the “medal count” leads with a nation or athlete with the most gold medals, not overall as the way the U.S. sees it. Latynina may have been biased, but she believed Phelps needed to pass her total to become the greatest Olympian of all time.

“Well, if you want to know the greatest of all time, the first thing you look at is how many medals they have won,” she said in Russian a couple months before the London Games.

On Wednesday, Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen broke the record for most career Winter Olympic medals and tied the mark for total golds.

Bjoerndalen, 41 and in his sixth Olympics, teamed with Tora Berger, Tiril Eckhoff and Emil Hegle Svendsen to win the first Olympic mixed biathlon relay.

He turned in a performance befitting the occasion on his leg, the third of four.

Eckhoff handed off to Bjoerndalen even with the Czech Republic. Bjoerndalen opened up a 43.1-second lead on his 7.5km, going five for five on two .22-caliber rifle shooting stations. Bjoerndalen said there was no debate over the plan to have Svendsen on anchor rather than put himself in position to cross the finish line and get the glory photos to accompany his record.

“Emil is the fastest in the sprint,” Bjoerndalen said. “We need him on the last one.”

The soft-spoken man they call the biathlon king now has 13 medals and eight golds with one more shot at a medal in the men’s relay Saturday. Another Norwegian, 1990s cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie, has 12 and eight.

Bjoerndalen is now the most decorated Winter Olympian in terms of medals, but is he the greatest Winter Olympian ever?

“For me, it’s Bjorn Daehlie,” Bjoerndalen said.

What is Bjoerndalen’s definition of a great Olympian?

VIDEO: Bjoerndalen belongs among greatest

“For sure it’s about how many medals you take,” he said, before pausing and sighing. “It’s a really difficult question. Olympics, for me, you’re fighting for four years, preparation for these Olympics. It’s a hard job. You need to make a good plan and do really good training. You need to fight every day. You need to be in good shape these two weeks, this four years and the next time. If you’re sick, what can you do? You have no chance to start. You need to be so prepared. You need to take so many choices in your life. If you’re really clever and make the hardest choice, you have a chance to be there.”

Those who doubt Bjoerndalen can point to the fact he’s entered more Winter Olympic events than anybody in history – 26, including one cross-country race.

That would make his medal success rate 50 percent, hardly the best ever.

Canadian hockey player Caroline Ouellette will go for her fourth straight gold medal against the U.S. on Thursday. No Winter Olympian has entered four or more events and won all of them.

Unlike Bjoerndalen, Ouellette has no chance to win multiple medals at a single Olympics, hockey being in a team sport. However, Ouellette is not seen as the greatest women’s hockey player ever and not even in her own country. Hayley Wickenheiser was also on the three previous Canada women’s hockey teams that won gold, plus the 1998 team that won silver (and Canada’s 2000 Olympic softball team that did not win a medal).

Figure skaters Sonja Henie and Dick Button also merit mention for single-event prowess.

This brings to mind Al Oerter, a man some still call the greatest Summer Olympian ever. Oerter also entered four career Olympic events and won them all, four straight discus gold medals from 1956 through 1968, all in Olympic record distances.

Longevity is also a factor.

Bjoerndalen competed in six Olympics over 20 years. He’s in his last Winter Games. It’s possible somebody competing for that long might never have truly been transcendent, but rather always near the top and consistently collecting achievements. (Akin to the “Hall of Very Good” debate in MLB.)

Bjoerndalen does not fit that mold. He won every biathlon event at the 2002 Olympics – four gold medals. He was the most decorated athlete at those Winter Games across all sports.

Eric Heiden remains the standard of single Winter Games accomplishments, sweeping the five speed skating events at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. Dutch-like dominance there.

But Heiden did not have longevity. He competed in one other Olympics, when he was 17 in 1976, and finished seventh and 19th in two events. Heiden retired from speed skating shortly after the 1980 Olympics. He took up cycling, almost qualifying for the 1980 Olympics, and later entered, but did not finish, a Tour de France.

Heiden was in Sochi before the Olympics (he watched the Super Bowl with J.R. Celski in an Athletes Village). He did not respond to interview requests before the Games on the subject of Norwegian cross-country skier Marit Bjoergen possibly winning six medals in Sochi (she failed to do so).

Bjoergen, 33, won her second gold medal Wednesday, giving her nine total medals over her career. She could win one more in Sochi.

That could set her up to chase Bjoerndalen’s mark at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, at which point we could be having this discussion all over again.

Francesco Friedrich, most decorated bobsledder in history, rebounds for 12th world title

Francesco Friedrich
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A week after his first major championships defeat in seven years, German Francesco Friedrich returned to his winning ways to close the world bobsled championships on Sunday.

Friedrich’s four-man sled won the world title by 69 hundredths of a second over British and Latvian sleds that tied for silver, combining times from four runs over the last two days in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Geoff Gadbois drove the lone U.S. sled in the field, finishing 18th.

Friedrich, the most decorated bobsledder in history, extended his records with a fifth consecutive world four-man title and 12th world championship between two- and four-man events.

Germany swept all four titles at bobsled worlds with four different drivers taking gold.

Friedrich had won 12 consecutive Olympic or world titles before taking two-man silver at worlds last week in St. Moritz, Switzerland. He was dethroned in that event by countryman Johannes Lochner.

Friedrich has been hampered recently by a muscle injury from sprint training in late December. Going into worlds, Lochner had won four consecutive World Cup two-man races, while Hall won the last two World Cups in four-man.

Friedrich, 32, said before this season that he plans to make the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games his final competition. Friedrich and push athlete Thorsten Margis can break the record of four career Olympic bobsled gold medals that they currently share with retired Germans Andre Lange and Kevin Kuske.

The World Cup season concludes with stops in Igls, Austria, and Sigulda, Latvia, the next two weekends.

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2023 World Alpine Skiing Championships TV, live stream schedule

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Every race of the world Alpine skiing championships airs live on Peacock from Feb. 6-19.

France hosts the biennial worlds in Meribel and Courchevel — six women’s races, six men’s races and one mixed-gender team event.

Mikaela Shiffrin is the headliner, in the midst of her most successful season in four years with a tour-leading 11 World Cup wins in 23 starts. Shiffrin is up to 85 career World Cup victories, one shy of Ingemar Stenmark‘s record accumulated over the 1970s and ’80s.

World championships races do not count in the World Cup tally.

Shiffrin is expected to race at least four times at worlds, starting with Monday’s combined. She earned a medal in 11 of her 13 career world championships races, including each of the last 10 dating to 2015.

Shiffrin won at least one race at each of the last five world championships (nobody has gold from six different worlds). Her six total golds and 11 total medals are American records. At this edition, she can become the most decorated skier in modern world championships history from any nation.

She enters one medal shy of the record for most individual world championships medals since World War II (Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt) and four medals shy of the all-time record. (Worlds were held annually in the 1930s, albeit with fewer races.)

She is also one gold medal shy of the post-World War II individual record shared by Austrian Toni Sailer, Frenchwoman Marielle Goitschel and Swede Anja Pärson.

The other favorites at these worlds include Italian Sofia Goggia, the world’s top female downhiller this season, and the two leading men: Swiss Marco Odermatt (No. 1 in super-G and giant slalom) and Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde (No. 1 in downhill).

2023 World Alpine Skiing Championships Broadcast Schedule

Date Event Time (ET) Platform
Mon., Feb. 6 Women’s Combined Super-G Run 5 a.m. Peacock
Women’s Combined Slalom Run 8:30 a.m. Peacock
Tues., Feb. 7 Men’s Combined Super-G Run 5 a.m. Peacock
Men’s Combined Slalom Run 8:30 a.m. Peacock
Wed., Feb. 8 Women’s Super-G 5:30 a.m. Peacock
Thu., Feb. 9 Men’s Super-G 5:30 a.m. Peacock
Sat., Feb. 11 Women’s Downhill 5 a.m. Peacock
Highlights 2:30 p.m.* NBC, Peacock
Sun., Feb. 12 Men’s Downhill 5 a.m Peacock
Highlights 3 p.m.* NBC, Peacock
Tue., Feb. 14 Team Parallel 6:15 a.m. Peacock
Men’s/Women’s Parallel Qualifying 11 a.m. Peacock
Wed., Feb. 15 Men’s/Women’s Parallel 6 a.m. Peacock
Thu., Feb. 16 Women’s Giant Slalom Run 1 4 a.m. Peacock
Women’s Giant Slalom Run 2 7:30 a.m. Peacock
Fri., Feb. 17 Men’s Giant Slalom Run 1 4 a.m. Peacock
Men’s Giant Slalom Run 2 7:30 a.m. Peacock
Sat., Feb. 18 Women’s Slalom Run 1 4 a.m. Peacock
Women’s Slalom Run 2 7:30 a.m. Peacock
Highlights 2:30 p.m.* NBC, Peacock
Sun., Feb. 19 Men’s Slalom Run 1 4 a.m. Peacock
Men’s Slalom Run 2 7:30 a.m. Peacock
Highlights 3 p.m.* NBC, Peacock

*Delayed broadcast
*All NBC coverage streams on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app for TV subscribers.

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