Bjoerndalen, Ole Einar
Ole Einar Bjoerndalen
Ole Einar Bjoerndalen listened to a vacuum cleaner salesman, then cleaned up at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Bjoerndalen, from Norway, won four gold medals in the biathlon, an event that combines cross-country skiing with target shooting. Amid an Olympiad that featured the stunning success of American figure skater Sarah Hughes , an enthralling gold-medal hockey game and a judging scandal in ice dancing, Bjoerndalen drew attention to an event many consider on the far fringe of sport.
Bjoerndalen took the gold in the 10-kilometer sprint, 20-kilometer individual, 12.5 km pursuit, and the 4×7.5 km relay. He became only the third person to win at least four gold medals in one winter Olympiad; speed skaters Eric Heiden of the United States and Lydia Skoblikova of Russia won five and four in 1980 and 1964, respectively. He credits Oyvind Hammer, a Dick Vitale style pitchman for Filter Queen vacuums and motivational speaker on the side, for elevating his confidence and consistency.
Liked Target Shooting
Bjoerndalen was adept at cross-country skiing while growing up in the small Norwegian town of Simostranda, but opted for biathlon because he enjoyed target shooting. "Often ridiculed in the United States as a freak sport, the biathlon has its roots in Nordic warfare," Charlie Leduff wrote in the New York Times. The event surfaced in the Olympics in 1928 as a demonstration sport, called military patrol, and became a medal event in 1960, at Squaw Valley, California.
"Biathlon is the sport of the lean and the long," Greg Baum wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald. "The skis are skinny, the skiers more so. Bjoerndalen is 179 cm (about 5-foot-10) and just 66kg (about 146 pounds).… Protagonists skate up hill and down dale, stopping twice to shoot at a set of five targets, once from the prone position and once upright. For each missed target, competitors
must do a 150m 'penalty loop,' costing up to 20 seconds, depending on skiing ability."
Bjoerndalen, who could have made Norway's powerhouse cross-country team on skiing skills alone, introduced the speed element to biathlon. He competed in the 1994 Winter Olympics, which Norway hosted in Lillehammer. He won no medals, but in World Cup competition improved to fourth and second in 1995 and 1997, respectively. In the 1998 Games at Nagano, Japan, Bjoerndalen won the gold medal in a10km event interrupted for a day by heavy snow and fog. "I was really angry," Bjoerndalen said, according to the Anchorage Daily News. "But five minutes later I was ready for the new race." He was also part of a silver medalist 4×7.5km team in Nagano.
Power of Positive Thinking
Bjoerndalen, however, was inconsistent. Hammer, who came along to help him in the mid-1990s, provided Bjoerndalen with a sense of stability. "He was considered a rock of talent with pebbles for nerves," Leduff wrote. Hammer, according to Leduff, "has become Rasputin in Bjoerndalen's court."
Even critics who call the biathlon a marginal event acknowledge its demands on athletes. One must ski fast on a cross-country course, then settle down at a firing range and hit a target 50 meters (about 165 feet) away with a heart rate at about 180 to 190 beats per minute. Skiing too quickly can be detrimental in biathlon, as competitors must slow their heart rate to where they are as motionless as possible while shooting. Bjoerndalen is in such strong shape that his heart rate can drop quickly; he can also make up for missing a target by skiing faster.
Supreme at Soldier Hollow
To prepare for the thin air of Salt Lake City, home of the 2002 Olympics, Bjoerndalen trained in other high-altitude regions. The Soldier Hollow course, the biathlon site in Salt Lake, was 6,000 feet above sea level. Soldier Hollow, according to Baum, posed a special challenge. "It is a hillier course at a higher elevation than all others, which puts an enormous cardiovascular strain on competitors. Upon passing the finish line yesterday, most collapsed to the snow, though we hesitate to say 'as if shot.' Not that they complain. 'It's all hills,' (British veteran Mike) Dixon said. 'And the altitude… it's really hard. It's great.'"
Bjoerndalen began his medals run with a victory in the 20 km. Later in the same week, he was one of only nine competitors to hit every target while winning the 10 km by 29 seconds. After finishing first in the men's 12.5 km pursuit, he secured his fourth gold by anchoring Norway's 4×7.5 km relay team despite falling on a downhill stretch and missing three shots in a snowfall that made shooting difficult. "Norway, despite Bjoerndalen's formidable presence, looked to have a weaker team than the Germans and the Russians," the British Broadcasting Corporation wrote on its web site. "But Bjoerndalen set off for the final leg with a minute's cushion after his three teammates (Halvard Hanevold, Frode Andresen and Egil Gjelland) all produced fine performances."
"Bjoerndalen's skiing is so superior that when teammate Egil Gjelland tagged off to him with Norway in the lead by almost a minute, Bjoerndalen could've lost a pole and still won," Beth Bragg wrote in the Anchorage Daily News. Bjoerndalen did in fact break a pole on the course as well as tumbling downhill and missing three targets. Despite the fifteen-second penalty Norwar incurred because of those errors, the Norwegian team placed first in the competition. After securing his fourth gold of the Olympiad and Norway's first gold ever in the relay, Bjoerndalen raised his arms, hugged his teammates and embraced his fiancee, Natalie Santer.
"A workmanlike approach—and exquisite skiing—made Bjoerndalen a champion for the ages," Bragg wrote. "A vocal and visible contingent of flag-waving Norwegian fans cheered his every shot and every kilometer here at Soldier Hollow, and Bjoerndalen promised there would be a big party Wednesday night."
Elevates Biathlon Status
Bjoerndalen's success has brought international media attention to a sport many consider more appropriate for the ESPN Xtreme Games. And, of course, he is a hero in Norway, which takes its winter sports seriously. Bjoerndalen's performance, Leduff wrote, "has elevated him to rock-star status in his home country, where the combined art of skiing and shooting ranks second only to soccer."
|1974||Born January 24 in Drammen, Norway|
|1994||Competes in Winter Olympic Games at Lillehammer, Norway|
|2002||Signs clothing deal with Odlo, in conjunction with the Norwegian Biathlon Association; extends deal with French ski equipment company Rossignol|
|2003||Winning streak of four straight World Cup biathlons ends as Vladimir Dratchev of Belarus defeats him in Anterselva, Italy|
Awards and Accomplishments
|2002 Wins four gold medals, only third Winter Olympics athlete to do so, winning 12.5km pursuit, 10km sprint, 20km individual, and 4×7.5km relay|
|1993||Three gold medals, junior world championships|
|1995||Finishes fourth in World Cup biathlon ski standings|
|1997||Finishes second in World Cup standings|
|1998||World Cup overall champion|
|1998||Wins gold medal in men's 10km and silver medal in men's 4×7.5km relay at Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan|
|2001||Wins two World Cup gold medals|
With success came sponsor deals. Bjoerndalen, who competed in World Cup events during the winter of 2002-03, signed a clothing deal with Odlo worth about $300,000. Hoping to shake off the burdens of celebrity status, he trained with fewer people during the offseason. As of late January, 2003, Bjoerndalen was second in the World Cup standings to Raphael Poiree of France. Vladimir Dratchev of Belarus snapped a Bjoerndalen winning streak of four biathlons by beating him in the 20 km individual.
"Bjoerndalen Wins 4th Gold; U.S. vs. Canada for Bronze in Women's Curling." Chicago Tribune (February 21, 2002): 8.
Leduff, Charlie. "Fourth Gold Medal for a Positive Thinker." New York Times (February 21, 2002): D1.
Baum, Greg. "Bjoerndalen a Hot Shot in the Snow." Sydney Morning Herald, http:/old.smh.com.au/news/0202/15/sport/sport14/html, (February 15, 2002).
Biography Resource Center, Ole Einar Bjoerndalen profile, http://galenet.galegroup.com, (January 31, 2003).
"Bjoerndalen Takes Fourth Gold." BBC Sport, http://news.bbc.co.uk/winterolympics2002, (February 20, 2002).
Bragg, Beth. "Simply Unbeatable: Unassuming Norwegian Quietly Earns Fourth Gold of Games," Anchorage Daily News, http://anchorage.com/sports/olympics/story/767739p-819629c.html, (February 21, 2002).
Johansen, Robert Veiaaker. "Lone Wolf Bjoerndalen Cleaning Out Pack." Translation by Brian Olsen. Frozenbullet.com, http://www.frozenbullet.com, (July 19, 2002).
Olsen, Brian. "Bjoerndalen: Sponsor Deals, Hunting Trips, and Bad News." Frozenbullet.com, http://www.frozenbullet.com, (July 2, 2002).
Sketch by Paul Burton
Ole Einar Bjoerndalen: Atypical Hero
Bjoerndalen's accomplishments are likely to be more highly regarded (outside) the United States. … He is the antithesis to many of the breakoutstars of these Olympics. No body piercings, no soul patch, no rad vocabulary … no trash talk. He's No. 1 with a bullet, that's all.
Source: Bragg, Beth. Anchorage Daily News, February 21, 2002.