Great Winter Olympic rivalries: Norway's Johannes Thingnes Bø and Sturla Holm Laegreid dual-rule

Norway is the firm favourite for gold in the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games biathlon events -- and the ever-powerful Scandinavian team boasts two athletes, in particular, engaged in direct competition for the title of world's best in the sport.

By Ilya Yashynin
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

The start of last season in the men's biathlon was anxiously awaited by fans.

Those with an enduring interest in biathlon are used to the fact that there's no absolute leader in the sport. France's Martin Fourcade won the overall World Cup title seven times in a row, but always had a tough fight en route to the top of the podium.

The two legends (Bø and Fourcade) once competed against each other at their own prohibitive level. So when Fourcade announced his retirement in the spring of 2020, the question had to be asked: who could compete with the Bø -- now in a class of his own -- as equal? There were no obvious candidates, but the first race of the 2020/21 season reassured fans that Bø would not remain without a serious competitor.

The newcomer, Sturla Holm Laegreid, emerged to make a step up in class.

The newcomer

In the first race of the season, Bø was challenged by his younger compatriot Laegreid. The challenger covered 20 targets out of 20 and won the individual race. Bø lost almost 20 seconds to the winner, although he missed only once -- earlier such accuracy was enough to see him climb to the top step of the podium.

For Laegreid, it was only his fifth race in the World Cup, so the victory was viewed with a degree of caution, as, in the sport of biathlon, sometimes sensational upsets will happen. However, Laegreid proved he was for real and in for the long haul. Last season he won seven individual races, two of them at the World Championships in Pokljuka. In total, Legreid won four golds at the competition in Slovenia -- a result previously achieved only by such legends as Ole Einar Bjørndalen, Fourcade and Emil Hegle Svendsen.

Bø was not as successful at the World Championships. He won bronze in the pursuit and gold in the relay (together with Laegreid). However, he did manage to beat the newcomer in the overall World Cup standings. Laegreid fought for the overall Crystal Globe trophy until the last race of the season, but lost by a slim 13 points.

Strengths and weaknesses

Laegreid's success was due, in large part, to his sharp shooting. 92.6% of his shots were accurate (only the Austrian Simon Eder had a better percentage (93.33%).

"I may have once been a model for Sturla, but now I ask him about shooting myself," admitted Bø.

After a tough season, Bø is now paying extra attention to his shooting. In May, together with his family, he moved to Kongsvinger (90 km from Oslo) and built his own shooting range in his backyard. For his part, Laegreid focussed more on the speed of his cross-country skiing during the off-season:

"Johannes can run fast without any apparent effort," Laegreid said. "It looks like it doesn't cost him anything. That's what I envy about him."

Rivalry and friendship both

The new biathlon season started last week. Laegreid won the start race, but Bø did better in the following contest. The confrontation continues, and it should peak at the Olympic Games in Beijing in February. Neither athlete will rule out skipping World Cup races in order to get into the best shape for the main winter competition.

And despite the serious competition for the title of best athlete in men's biathlon, Bø and Laegreid get along well off the snow. "At the shootout or when meeting Fourcade in the hotel corridor, the atmosphere was not warm. With Sturla, it's the opposite. I'm very happy about that, it's especially important for the team," admitted Bø.

Beijing 2022 will be the third Olympics for Bø. At the 2014 Games in Sochi, he failed to rise above 11th in the table. But in Pyeongchang 2018, he won gold and two silver medals. Beijing 2022 will be Laegreid's first Olympic Games -- and once there the reigning four-time world champion will aim to cement his status in the lore of the sport.

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