Ole Einar Bjoerndalen

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

Leave a comment
source:
Photo credits: Getty

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.

Anna van der Breggen is first cyclist to sweep road world titles in 25 years

Anna van der Breggen
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Dutchwoman Anna van der Breggen added the road race crown to her time trial victory at the world road cycling championships, becoming the second rider in history to win both events at the same edition.

“This is, for me, pretty good so far,” she said.

Van der Breggen, the Rio Olympic road race champion, won after a solo attack with more than 25 miles left of an 89-mile course in Imola, Italy, on Saturday.

She prevailed after more than four hours of racing by 80 seconds over countrywoman Annemiek van Vleuten, the 2019 champion. Van Vleuten raced nine days after breaking her left wrist in a Giro Rosa crash.

Italian Elisa Longo Borghini took bronze in the same time as van Vleuten after losing a photo-finish sprint. Lauren Stephens was the top American in 11th.

Full results are here.

The race lacked American standout Chloé Dygert, who crashed out of the time trial while leading on Thursday and required leg surgery.

Van der Breggen joined Frenchwoman Jeannie Longo as the only male or female cyclists to sweep the time trial and road race at a single worlds. Longo did so in 1995 at age 36.

Van der Breggen, 30, said in May that she will retire after the 2021 Olympic season.

It will be the end of one of the great cycling careers. She is now a three-time world champion and nine-time world medalist to go along with her road race gold and time trial bronze in her Olympic debut in Rio.

Worlds conclude Sunday with the men’s road race. A TV and stream schedule is here.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: A more equal future for women’s cycling? Lizzie Deignan has high hopes

2020 French Open TV, live stream schedule

Leave a comment

Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams can each tie Grand Slam singles titles records at the French Open, with daily live coverage among NBC Sports, Peacock and Tennis Channel.

NBC coverage starts Sunday with first-round action at Roland Garros, its 38th straight year covering the event. Tennis Channel airs the majority of weekday coverage. Peacock, NBC Universal’s new streaming service, has middle weekend broadcasts.

All NBC TV coverage alo streams on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

Nadal is the primary men’s storyline, favored to tie Roger Federer‘s male record of 20 major titles and extend his own record of 12 French Open crowns. Federer is absent after knee operations earlier this year.

The Spaniard’s primary competition is top-ranked Novak Djokovic, the 2016 French Open champion whose only defeat in 2020 was a U.S. Open default for hitting a ball that struck a linesperson in the throat.

Williams bids again to match the overall Grand Slam singles mark of 24 held by Australian Margaret Court. Williams, a three-time French Open champion, lost in the third and fourth round the last two years and is coming off a U.S. Open semifinal exit.

The women’s field is led by 2018 champion Simona Halep but lacks defending champion Ash Barty of Australia, not traveling due to the coronavirus pandemic. Also out: U.S. Open winner Naomi Osaka, citing a sore hamstring and tight turnaround from prevailing in New York two weeks ago.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: How Jay-Z, Beyonce helped Naomi Osaka come out of her shell

French Open TV Schedule

Date Time (ET) Network Round
Sunday, Sept. 27 5 a.m.-3 p.m. Tennis Channel First Round
12-3 p.m. NBC
Monday, Sept. 28 5 a.m.-3 p.m. Tennis Channel First Round
Tuesday, Sept. 29 5 a.m.-3 p.m. Tennis Channel First Round
Wednesday, Sept. 30 5 a.m.-3 p.m. Tennis Channel Second Round
Thursday, Oct. 1 5 a.m.-3 p.m. Tennis Channel Second Round
Friday, Oct. 2 5 a.m.-3 p.m. Tennis Channel Third Round
Saturday, Oct. 3 5 a.m.-12 p.m. Tennis Channel Third Round
11 a.m. Peacock
Sunday, Oct. 4 5 a.m.-12 p.m. Tennis Channel Fourth Round
11 a.m. Peacock
Monday, Oct. 5 5 a.m.-3 p.m. Tennis Channel Fourth Round
11 a.m. Peacock
Tuesday, Oct. 6 6 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tennis Channel Quarterfinals
Wednesday, Oct. 7 6 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tennis Channel Quarterfinals
Thursday, Oct. 8 5 a.m.-2 p.m. Tennis Channel Women’s Semis
11 a.m. NBC, NBCSN
Friday, Oct. 9 5 a.m.-4 p.m. Tennis Channel Men’s Semis
11 a.m. NBC, NBCSN
Saturday, Oct. 10 9 a.m. NBC Women’s Final
Sunday, Oct. 11 9 a.m. NBC Men’s Final