No man has won more Olympic Winter Games golds, medals, World Cup races and world titles than biathlon great Ole Einar Bjørndalen, who spent a quarter of a century at the very top of his sport. The Norwegian finally hung up his skis and rifle at the age of 44, in April 2018, leaving a huge legacy for biathlon and for sport in general.
Bjørndalen made his Olympic debut on home snow at Lillehammer 1994 at the age of 20. He finished 36th in the 20km individual pursuit and 28th in the sprint, while helping the host quartet finish seventh in the men’s relay. The experience stood him in good stead. Four years later in Nagano, he claimed his first Olympic title in the sprint, and also featured in the Norwegian four that took relay silver
At Salt Lake City 2002, by now 28 and in his prime, Bjørndalen’s medal-winning exploits gained momentum, as he achieved a remarkable clean sweep of the biathlon golds, winning the sprint, the pursuit, the 20km individual and the 4x7.5km relay. By the time he arrived in Turin for the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, he was already established at the top of his sport. However, there were no more gold medals this time. Instead he had to settle for silvers in the 20km individual and pursuit events, and a bronze in the new mass-start event.
At Vancouver 2010, the Norwegian took his Olympic medal tally to 11, winning silver in the 20km individual before claiming gold alongside Halvard Hannevold, Tarjei Bø and Emil Hegle Svendsen in the men’s relay. Not for nothing was Bjørndalen known during his career as “The Cannibal” – such was his insatiable appetite for success.
He showed that hunger once more at Sochi 2014, winning Olympic gold medal number seven thanks to a commanding performance in the sprint and then collecting the final gold of his storied career in the mixed relay, an event that was making its Olympic debut.
That 13th Olympic medal took him past his compatriot Bjørn Daehlie, the greatest cross-country skier of all time, who won eight golds himself between 1992 and 1998. The two Norwegians have since been eclipsed in the medal charts by fellow countrywoman Marit Bjørgen, who left PyeongChang 2018 with 15 cross-country medals to her name, again eight of them golds.
Sochi 2014 saw Bjørndalen confirm his status as the best biathlete in history. His remarkable success, consistency and longevity are, in large measure, due to a peerless level of professionalism. He has pushed his sport to physical limits never seen before, with meticulous preparation and a punishing regime that has seen him clock up 900-1,000 training hours every year from the age of 15.
Few athletes have done as much to galvanise their sport, and his approach raised the bar for a new generation of biathletes. He was, for example, the first to work with a personal shooting coach and a sports psychologist. And his love of competition continued to drive him forward, at a time in his career when many may have been tempted to rest on their laurels. In the process, he continually reinvented himself, not least when, at the age of 36, he took the radical step of revamping his shooting style ahead of Vancouver 2010.
It was in Sochi that Bjørndalen was voted by his peers onto the IOC Athletes’ Commission along with Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser, a four-time Olympic ice hockey champion. In the years that followed, the biathlon icon pressed ahead with his sporting career and his objective of making it to PyeongChang 2018. After recording his 95th World Cup win in the 20km individual in Ostersund (SWE) in December 2015, the six-time overall World Cup champion set about preparing for the 2016 IBU World Championships on home soil.
Rising to the occasion in front of thousands of adoring fans in Oslo-Holmenkollen, the 42-year-old Bjørndalen took his total of World Championship medals to 44, 20 of them gold. In finishing second in the sprint, second in the pursuit, third in the mass start and winning the men’s relay with the Bø brothers (Tarjei and Johannes) and Emil Hegle Svendsen, he was Norway’s most successful performer at the Championships.
Given his hectic schedule and sporting objectives, Bjørndalen announced in April 2016 that he was resigning from his post with the IOC. Three months later he married the Belarusian biathlete Darya Domracheva, who gave birth to their daughter Xenia on 1 October. The most admired biathlete on the circuit, the Norwegian then contested his 22nd World Championships in Hochfilzen (AUT) in February 2017. A medallist at every Worlds since 1997, he continued that sequence with a bronze in the mass start, his 45th medal.
The 2017/18 season was not the most memorable for Bjørndalen, still pushing himself to the limit at the age of 44. His highest finish was 18th, in the opening individual event in Östersund (SWE) on 30 November and he failed to earn selection for Norway’s Olympic team.
“The season did not go as planned, with performances which were inferior to what others and I were expecting” said a disappointed Bjørndalen, who nevertheless made the trip to PyeongChang 2018 as part of the Belarus delegation and as a coach to his wife, who won silver in the mass start before anchoring her country to victory in the women’s relay.
Bjørndalen made his last competitive appearance in the pursuit in Tyumen (RUS) on 25 March 2018. A week later, at an emotional press conference in Simostranda – the town where he grew up and embarked on his biathlon career – the Norwegian announced his retirement.
“I would have liked to have carried on for a few more years, but this was my last season,” he said, before adding that the favourite moment of his career came in the sprint at Nagano 1998, a race he was leading before the weather called it to a halt. “Luckily I went back the next day and won it,” he explained. “It was the biggest and craziest experience of my life.”
His farewell was greeted with heartfelt tributes from across the sporting world. “Ole Einar Bjørndalen is one of the greatest (athletes) of all time,” said International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. “He has shown that on many occasions in the competitive arena. Most importantly of all, however, he is a true Olympian and a role model for young athletes around the world.”
There were also warm words for the Norwegian legend from France’s Martin Fourcade, who is on track to join him as one of biathlon’s all-time greats: “He raised professional standards for the benefit of everyone, and the media coverage we enjoy today would not have been possible, in large, without him.”
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