Ole Einar Bjoerndalen

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

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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.

1960 Winter Olympic host considers name change over derogatory term

Squaw Valley
AP
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TAHOE CITY, Calif. — California’s popular Squaw Valley Ski Resort is considering changing its name to remove the word “squaw” — a derogatory term for Native American women — amid a national reckoning over racial injustice and inequality.

The word “squaw,” derived from the Algonquin language, may have once simply meant “woman,” but over generations, the word morphed into a misogynist and racist term to disparage indigenous women, said Vanessa Esquivido, a professor of American Indian Studies at California State University, Chico.

“That word is an epithet and a slur. It’s been a slur for a very long time,” she said.

When settlers arrived in the 1850s in the area where the Sierra Nevada mountain resort is now located, they first saw only Native American women working in a meadow. The land near Lake Tahoe was believed to have been given the name Squaw Valley by those early settlers.

But now the term is considered derogatory and even the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word as an offensive term for a Native American woman.

The possible renaming of Squaw Valley Ski Resort is one of many efforts across the nation to address colonialism and indigenous oppression, including the removal of statues of Christopher Columbus, a symbol to many of European colonization and the death of native people.

On Monday, the National Football League’s Washington Redskins announced the team is dropping the “Redskins” name and Indian head logo.

Regional California tribes have asked for the name of Squaw Valley Ski Resort — which received international name recognition when it hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics — to be changed numerous times over the years, with little success.

But the idea is gaining momentum.

Squaw Valley President & CEO Ron Cohen said the resort is currently taking inventory of all the places where the name appears on and off the property, how much it would cost to change and what to prioritize if the change moves ahead.

Removing “squaw” from the resort name would be a lengthy and expensive process, Cohen said, as the name appears on hundreds of signs and is imprinted on everything from uniforms to vehicles.

Cohen, who took over as head of the resort two years ago, said the operators are also meeting with shareholders, including business and homeowners within the resort, as well as the local Washoe tribal leadership to get their input.

Cohen said he could not give a timeline on when a decision could be made.

Washoe Tribe Chairman Serrell Smokey said the name Squaw Valley is a constant reminder of efforts to disparage native people.

He’s in favor of the name change and suggested “Olympic Valley” as a replacement.

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‘In Deep with Ryan Lochte’ highlights Peacock launch sports offerings

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“In Deep with Ryan Lochte,” a documentary on the swimmer’s Rio Olympic scandal and return from suspensions, premieres on Peacock on Wednesday, when NBC Universal’s new streaming service launches.

From NBC Universal PR: “[Lochte] was at the center of a scandal that has since overshadowed a decorated swimming career that includes 12 Olympic medals. Now a 35-year-old husband and father of two young children, Lochte is hoping for one more chance to make Team USA and prove he’s not the same man he was four years ago.”

Lochte’s life since his Rio gas-station incident: a 10-month suspension, engagement and marriage to Kayla Reid, the birth of son Caiden and daughter Liv, the dedication of his swims at the 2020 Olympics to Nicholas Dworet, a swimmer killed in the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, a 14-month ban after he posted a social media image of an illegal IV transfusion of a legal substance, a six-week alcohol addiction rehab stint and a 2019 U.S. title in the 200m individual medley (the meet lacked top Olympic hopefuls).

In the film, Lochte revisits what happened in Rio, when he embellished the actual story: that he, and three other U.S. swimmers, were confronted by a security guard after Lochte ripped down a sign outside of a bathroom after late-night drinking. The swimmers’ competition was over.

“I messed up before that night even started,” Lochte said in the film. “I shouldn’t have even thought about going out and getting drunk. I should have represented my country the way we were taught. It just kind of spiraled down from there.

“It was all my fault, and I have to live with that for the rest of my life.”

The security guard, who pointed a gun at Lochte but not against his forehead, and a Rio police chief were interviewed on camera for the film.

Lochte said he plans to tell his children everything that happened.

“I don’t want to lie to them ever,” he said.

After the Olympics, Lochte said he saw a headline that said he was “the worst person in the world.” Most of all, he regretted that younger swimmers who previously looked up to him said he was no longer their role model.

“This is the most pressure I’ve had in my entire life,” Lochte said. “Yes, I made a mistake in Rio, and I need to earn the respect from my fellow swimmers, from Team USA, from everyone in the world. I gotta earn the respect. If I don’t make the Olympic team, they won’t see the change that I’ve made.”

Lochte, trying to become the oldest U.S. Olympic male swimmer in history, ranks fifth among Americans since the start of 2019 in the 200m IM. The top two at next summer’s Olympic Trials make the Tokyo Games.

“It’s pretty obvious now, I’m 100 percent family,” Lochte, who shed 30 added pounds from his time away from swimming, said at last August’s U.S. Championships. “That party-boy image that I used to have, I know it kind of messed me up, and it stuck with me, but that’s not me. I could care less about that lifestyle. My celebrations are picking up my son and my daughter and playing with them.”

Peacock’s launch also includes another sports offering, “Lost Speedways,” a series on the great racing cathedrals of the past created and hosted by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NBC Sports’ full Premier League match and studio coverage on Wednesday will be presented free on Peacock. That includes four matches, led by Liverpool at Arsenal at 3:15 p.m. ET. More information is here.

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