Meet Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, the Michael Phelps of the Winter Olympics

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Meet Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, the Michael Phelps of the Winter Olympics
Lee Jin-man/Associated Press

With 13 career Olympic medals, Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen is the Michael Phelps of the Winter Olympics.

That is, if Michael Phelps was still winning medals at 40, was good with a rifle and had an entire nation depending on him to reverse its woeful Olympic fortunes.

Coming into Wednesday, biathlete Bjoerndalen, in his sixth Olympics, needed one more medal to overtake countryman Bjorn Daehlie for most medals won in Winter Olympic history. Phelps has won the most Olympic medals of any athlete, winter or summer, with 22. After winning the Olympic opener, the 10-kilometer sprint on Feb. 8, Bjoerndalen also became the Winter Olympics’ oldest gold medalist.

While he flubbed the opportunity to grab the title in three straight events (12.5, 15 and 20 kilometers), Bjoerndalen earned lucky number 13 on Wednesday with a gold medal in the new mixed relay event to take sole possession of the winter record.

Coming into the Games, Bjoerndalen hadn’t won a World Cup race in nearly two years.

"Last year everybody talked about him and said he has to retire," said Frenchman and two-time Sochi Olympic champion Martin Fourcade to reporters after the 10-kilometer race. "But I was one of the ones who trusted in him ... Today he shut the mouth of all the people who were speaking about him." 

Lee Jin-man/Associated Press

With one event left, Saturday’s 4x7.5-kilometer men’s relay, Bjoerndalen could earn one more and really distance himself as the all-time snow leader.

It’s now or never. He says these are his final Olympics.

“He’s as good now as he’s ever been,” said American Tim Burke, a three-time Olympian, to Nick Zaccardi of NBCOlympics.com.

Bjoerndalen’s nickname is “The Cannibal” for his hunger to win. But he hints he might be getting full.

"I am satisfied now. This is enough," he told reporters after his first gold of the Games. "Everything is a bonus from now. I made my gold and that's cool."

Yet in the Feb. 10 pursuit, Bjoerndalen proved the gold was no fluke, and that his appetite was not so diminished. He finished fourth, just missing the elusive record-setting medal.

He does not appear to have gray hair or even close to a paunch. With the gold, Bjoerndalen topped the record set by Canada’s Duff Gibson, who was 39 when he won skeleton gold in the 2006 Games.

Skeleton is a sliding sport, without the cardiovascular demands of biathlon.

Lee Jin-man/Associated Press

"I always forget that (I'm 40). I feel like I'm 20. My age is perfect," Bjoerndalen told reporters at the beginning of the Games. "I am in super form. I prepared well for this and I am feeling strong."

He is an innovator in the sport. Other, younger skiers are in awe of him, even as they ski alongside. Or behind.

He has, literally, taken their breath away.

Biathlon is an odd sport combining cross-country ski racing with target shooting. Biathletes carry rifles on their backs and have to be able to ski fast then slow their heart rates enough for a steady hand while shooting.

Try this: run a 100-yard sprint, then thread a needle. That’s what it feels like to be a biathlete.

At the target area, Bjoerndalen was the first to start taking fewer breaths between shots, per Zaccardi. Before, racers believed two or three breaths were necessary for steady aim between shots. Bjoerndalen took one. It cut as much as 20 seconds from race times. 

To prepare his lungs for Sochi, he lived in an Italian village at a similar, 4,500-foot altitude as the Olympic biathlon venue, according to Zaccardi. He doesn’t spend much time in Norway, training instead in the higher elevations of Austria and Italy. He had a psychology coach. Other coaches studied film of Bjoerndalen’s skiing.

“He’s single-handedly changed the sport,” Burke told Zaccardi. “He really turned it into a professional sport, in the late ‘90s, I would say. He’s very innovative, and he became so dominant that everyone else had to react to the way he was training to be competitive.”

Norwegians thought Bjoerndalen’s early success meant a good Games for Norway at Sochi. But they have been a disaster for Norway, whose identity is tied to how well it does in Olympic cross-country skiing.

The Norwegian team has failed to win a medal in either men’s or women’s relays, the first time that has happened since 1964. Worse, bitter rival Sweden won them. Norwegian stars like Petter Northug and Marit Bjoergen have had only mixed success.

Morry Gash/Associated Press

Norway probably didn’t think it would have to pin its feel-good hopes on a 40-year-old biathlete. Those who have covered him in his 21-year career say he’s boring, a big difference from Bjorn Daehlie, the Norwegian national icon whose record Bjoerndalen just eclipsed. He is more popular in Germany and Russia, where biathlon is big.

Bjoerndalen isn’t pursuing just a record. Daehlie, despite last year’s documentary that accused him of doping, has an aura no one can touch. Even after surpassing Daehlie, Bjoerndalen says he still considers Daehlie the greatest ever.

When he was racing, Daehlie was popular. He had flair. He’d sometimes cross the finish line backward.

Bjoerndalen is reserved. He collects watches for a hobby. He crosses the finish line facing front.

Daehlie was at the finish line after Bjoerndalen won gold. Daehlie was there to hug him. They are good friends. Maybe it would have been fitting for them to remain tied in the history books. But Michael Phelps would never settle for a tie. Neither would Bjoerndalen.

"In my eyes, Bjorn is still the biggest athlete in Norway," Bjoerndalen told reporters after tying Daehlie's record with his win in the 10-kilometer event.

He can be as modest as he wants. The history books now see it differently.

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