17 Feb 2020
With fifteen podium places, Marit Bjørgen has more medals than any other Olympic Winter Games athlete. She shares the record for the most titles with fellow Norwegians, cross-country skier Bjørn Daehlie and biathlete Ole Einar Bjørndalen – all of them have eight gold medals. She won her first gold in Vancouver, on 17 February 2010, at the close of the sprint final. It was her third Olympic Games!
Success didn’t come immediately to the greatest female cross-country skier of all time. Outside the Games, she set records in every FIS discipline, with 114 individual World Cup wins and 184 podiums, and 26 top three places, including 18 titles, in the World Championships. She was born on 21 March 1980 in Trondheim in the centre of Norway, and made her first international appearance at the European Youth Olympic Days in Sundsvall (Sweden) in 1997, where she won bronze in the 7.5 km classical. Her participation in the 1999 junior World Championships in Saalfelden (Austria) earned her an 8th place in the 5 km. Marit Bjørgen made her World Cup debut in the 1999-2000 season, but didn’t make it onto the podium. The same happened the following winter.
At the age of 21 she competed in her first Olympic Games, Salt Lake City 2002. She was a member of the Norwegian 4 x 5 km relay team, and on 21 February, alongside teammates Bente Skari, Hilde Pedersen and Anita Moen, she won her first medal. It was the silver, behind the German team. She also competed in the 15 km freestyle and the 30 km classical, where she placed 50th and 14th respectively. “Oh, to tell you the truth, it’s hard for me to remember! I was young in 2002. It was my first Olympic Games, and I still had a lot to learn,” she said in 2019, after announcing her retirement.
But that marked the start of her ascent. Marit began to notch up World Cup victories, mainly in the sprint event, and earned her first title at the 2003 World Championships in Val Di Fiemme (Italy). Two years later in Oberstdorf (Germany) the Norwegian champion won five medals, including golds in the 30 km, 4 x 5 km relay and team sprint events. Although she topped the World Cup rankings in 2005 and 2006, she had still not tasted success on the Olympic stage. Her participation in the Turin Games in 2006 was marred by an upset stomach, and she came away with one silver medal for the 10 km classical.
She finally sprints to victory in Whistler
With her third Olympic Games, Vancouver 2010, Marit Bjørgen would shine in every distance. Her first race – the 10 km freestyle – took place in Whistler on 15 February. Swedish skier Charlotte Kalla took gold ahead of Kristina Smigun of Estonia, and Marit won bronze. Two days later, she finally had her chance.
The classical sprint event began with the heats, where she recorded the best time by a good margin. That meant she would wear bib no. 1 for the rest of the competition. On a bright sunny day, she led the field in the quarter-finals and semi-finals with deceptive ease, over the 1.4 km circuit of flat stretches, climbs, descents and corners, by getting out in front at the beginning and gradually opening up her lead. Her main rival, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk, followed a similar strategy, and observers were looking forward to a fierce head-to-head in the six-person final.
On the first climb of the final race, Kowalczyk mounted an attack and pulled ahead, followed by Bjørgen. On the second climb the two skiers fought side by side, but on the first bend of the downhill Marit swooped inside Justyna and came out ahead, then after a superb effort, pushing with both poles, she crossed the finish line in 3:39.2, 1.01 seconds ahead of her rival. On 17 February 2010, Marit Bjørgen won her first Olympic gold medal in fine style. The second came 48 hours later, when she won the 15 km pursuit, beating Anna Haag of Sweden and Justyna Kowalczyk. The third came at the finish of the 4 x 5 km relay, when Norway (Bjørgen, Therese Johaug, Kristin Størmer Steira and Vibeke Skofterud) beat Germany to the finish, followed by Finland. Finally, the day before the closing ceremony on 27 February, an intense sprint down the final straight between the Norwegian and her Polish rival, at the finish of the 30 km classical, ended with an advantage for Kowalczyk, who crossed the line 3/10th of a second ahead. The Polish television commentator lost his voice!
Wins, titles and medals, plus all the records
The rest of Marit Bjørgen’s career needs no explanation: World Cup victories by the bucketload, a collection of crystal globes, strings of World Championship medals (14 titles in four editions: 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017), and a glittering Olympic career, with three more golds in Sochi 2014 (skiathlon 2 x 7.5 km, 30 km freestyle and team sprint) before her apotheosis in PyeongChang 2018 (in the meantime she had become a mother – her son Marius was born in December 2015) with a further five medals. She won bronze in the team sprint and 10 km freestyle, silver in skiathlon, a team gold in the 4 x 5 km relay and a final triumph, for her eighth gold medal and fifteenth podium in the final race, the 30 km classical.
At the end of that Olympic season, the Norwegian cross-country skiing legend retired after one final victory in the national championships, the 5 km classical, on 6 April 2018.
“I’ve had such a long career that I’m just happy to have been able to practise my sport at the highest level for so many years,” she said. “Skiing has become my job. I’m also glad I’ve had the mental strength to give it everything. I’ve also been lucky to have the physical strength to handle all the training. And I’m also proud to have excelled over all distances, from the sprint to 30 kilometres. It’s been an honour for me. But I’ve been truly lucky to have had the physical and mental strength to climb up through the ranks.”
And climbing the ranks started off with her first Olympic title, the anniversary of which we’re celebrating today!