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?
“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.