Bjørn Daehlie ends his Olympic career in style at Nagano 1998
Bjørn Daehlie competed at his last Games in 1998 in Nagano, at the age of 30. He had already racked up eight Olympic medals – including five golds – since Albertville 1992 Winter Olympic Games. In the snow in Hakuba, he won another four medals, including three golds, finishing on 22 February, the day of the Closing Ceremony, with an epic victory at the 50km finish line.
His first race at the Hakuba venue, on 9 February, was the 30km, staged under a thick shower of wet snow. He was not at his best, gradually slipping back and finishing in 20th place, over six minutes behind Finnish winner Mika Myllylä.
Three days later, it was the 10km, which would provide a memorable chapter in the Winter Games history book. Wearing bib number 45, Daehlie got off to a flying start and was ahead at all the checkpoints. He slowed down a little in the last 1,000m, but his lead was such that, on crossing the finish line, he was able to raise his arms aloft, beating Myllylä by more than 15 seconds. Austria’s Markus Gandler took silver some 8 seconds behind him. Daehlie’s sixth gold medal was already a historic one (he became the most decorated Olympic cross-country skier), but it was what happened next that made a lasting impression.
Games history in the making in the 10km finishing area
The very first Kenyan athlete to compete at the Winter Games, Philip Boit, was the last of the 97 athletes to cross the finish line. He came in 92nd and last place. The Norwegian champion insisted on delaying the medal ceremony to greet Boit more than 20 minutes after his victory. He stood behind the finish line, stopped Boit’s momentum by grabbing his arm, and gave him a warm hug. This image, which magnified the Olympic spirit, was naturally beamed around the world. Boit’s first child was born a few weeks after the Games in Nagano, and he named him Daehlie.
The Games continued for the greatest cross-country skier in history, the six-time winner of the World Cup overall ranking (from 1992 to 1999), who had racked up 46 victories and 81 podium places, and was an 18-time FIS World Championship medallist, including 9 titles. His next event was the 15km freestyle pursuit, of which he was a double-title holder, and in which he set off in first place after his win in the 10km.
His team-mate Thomas Alsgaard, who was ranked 5th, was 24 seconds behind him. Daehlie could not be caught by Gandler, Myllylä or Kazakhstan’s Vladimir Smirnov, who had finished the 10km ahead of Alsgaard. However, it was Alsgaard who caught up with Daehlie in the eighth kilometre of the race and refused to budge, sticking in his slipstream until the home straight, and ultimately overtook him 200m from the finish line. With this silver medal, Daehlie had earned his 10th Olympic podium place.
His fourth race was the 4x10km relay staged on 18 February. Norway got off to a poor start with Erling Jevne leaving Sture Sivertsen in 10th place. Sivertsen then clawed the team back to second place, 12 seconds behind Italy. Daehlie was the team’s third skier. He caught up with Italy’s Fabio Maj, and when he handed over to Thomas Alsgaard to finish, the two teams were neck and neck. Alsgaard was up against Silvio Fauner, and the race was determined in the sprint in the home straight, Alsgaard taking the lead and winning by 0.2 seconds. Daehlie thus took his seventh gold medal.
Going all out for an eighth Olympic title
Lastly, on Sunday 22 February 1998, a few hours before the Closing Ceremony, Daehlie competed in his last Olympic race, although he did not know it yet. It was the big one, the 50km, which he had won in 1992 in Albertville before finishing fourth in front of a home crowd in Lillehammer in 1994. Four years earlier, the race had been staged in classical style; in Hakuba, it was a freestyle format. Daehlie was not the favourite for this distance, in which he had only one international victory under his belt (his 1992 Olympic title). The previous two world champions had been Italian: Silvio Fauner in 1995 and Myllylä in 1997, the winner of the 30km in Nagano, but he was not competing in the 50km.
The champion born in Elverum (eastern Norway, on the Swedish border), on 19 June 1967, wore bib number 3, and got off to a slow start, coming in 10th at the first checkpoint, then increasing his pace to reach fourth place by the half-way stage. With 10km to go, he levelled with Sweden’s Niklas Jonsson. The two skiers took turns in the lead for a while then, in the final 2km, Daehlie waned and Jonsson pulled away. “I'm sure that was my hardest race ever,” he said. “I saw the gold medal going away in the last two kilometres, and it was hard to push myself because I was already completely exhausted.” With a last enormous push, Daehlie ended his race eight seconds ahead of Jonsson and collapsed at the finish line, unable to stand for a full five minutes.
Norwegian cross-country skiing becomes more professional with Daehlie
With his eighth Olympic title and 12th podium place under his belt, Bjørn Daehlie became the most decorated Winter Games athlete, but he didn’t want to stop there, announcing his intention to continue until Salt Lake City 2002. He had an outstanding 1998-9 season, ending with his sixth victory in the World Cup overall ranking, boosted by his first place in the “distance” ranking.
Unfortunately, in August 1999, he seriously injured his back in a roller-skiing accident. He did his utmost to make a comeback, but in the end, he had to face the facts, creating a tremendous wave of emotion in Norway when he announced in March 2001 that he was retiring from sport.
His record of eight titles was later equalled by his fellow Norwegians, biathlete Ole Einar Bjørndalen in 2014 and cross-country skier Marit Bjørgen in 2018. His 12 podium places were bettered by Bjørndalen in Sochi (13 medals), before Bjørgen took the record to 15 medals in PyeongChang. At the three Games in which Daehlie competed, each time he won four medals, but the Games in Lillehammer remained his greatest memory. “The Olympic Games at home in Norway. That was awesome. Winning there, with all those people watching, was absolutely fantastic. In 1988 we got the news that we would presumably host the Olympic Games in 1994. Those six years were my best period as a young racer. The development in the Norwegian Ski Federation, everything became more professional. The whole sport underwent a major change. We were able to hold training camps all over the world, we had people to do the waxing and so on. The entire sport became more professional.” This was in no small part down to Daehlie himself!