Norway’s Olympic (OL) superstars defied age, a death in the family and extremely tough competition to claim four medals during the first day of active competition in Sochi. Two of the medals were in gold, and one them went to a 40-year-old veteran of his sport.
Biathlon legend Ole Einar Bjørndalen,who turned 40 just a few weeks ago, competed in his first Olympics back home in Lillehammer in 1994. He had already said the Winter Olympics in Sochi would be his last, as he was retiring from the sport.
On Saturday he both shot and skied well enough during the men’s 10-kilometer biathlon sprint to claim the top spot on the winners’ podium. It was a performance that left Norwegian fans, commentators and his fellow athletes ecstatic, not least his own older brother who watched the race at the local clubhouse in their hometown of Simostranda, Buskerud County.
“This was enormous,” Dag Bjørndalen told state broadcaster NRK. “There were a lot of us who wanted him to win another gold medal. This was a fantastic presentation by Ole Einar.”
He’d had a rough couple of seasons lately and had acknowledged that the glory years when he routinely collected Olympic and World Championship gold had passed him by. His future Olympic participation, many speculated, was due to be as a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), not as an active competitor.
Bjørndalen himself told NRK after he’d won that yes, “it was a dream.” It had been five years since he last won gold as an individual, and his older brother thinks he’ll rank Saturday’s gold medal in Sochi as his best ever. He at least tied the record held by retired Norwegian cross-country skier Bjørn Dæhlie as holding the most Olympic medals.
Thrill of victory, agony of grief
Norwegian cross-country ski queen Marit Bjørgen, meanwhile, met the expectations of many when she also won gold in the first major race in her sport on Saturday. It was a bittersweet victory in the 15-kilometer classic and freestyle event, because one of her teammates, Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, had received word of her own brother’s death just the day before. While so many other Olympic athletes were enjoying the Opening Ceremonies on Friday evening, the Norwegian skiers were grieving, but Jacobsen herself said they should put their sport first. Bjørgen and her fellow Norwegians wore black armbands during Saturday’s race.
Bjørgen dissolved in tears, however, when she was shown a message from Jacobsen on social media during the winners’ press conference: “My fantastic girls, you are my strength, through thick and thin. Thank you for wearing the black armbands. Eternally grateful, whether there are any medals or not.” There were, of course, with Bjørgen winning her fourth Olympic gold medal and Norwegian Teammate Heidi Wang winning bronze. Charlotte Kalla of Sweden won silver, and they all hugged each other tight on the winners’ podium, with Kalla noting that they all know each other well and she was full of sympathy for Jacobsen, too.
Norway’s fourth medal on Saturday was actually its first of the day, coming early in the morning when snowboarder Ståle Sandbech from Bærum, just west of Oslo, won silver after what was called both a risky and spectacular performance in the slopestyle competition. The 20-year-old’s combination of tricks — called a “Front 14″ where the snowboarder spins 1440 degrees, and a “Back triple” — left both spectators and his competitors aghast, with gold-medal winner Sage Kotsenburg of the US telling NRK they were the “wildest” he’d ever seen over two jumps. Mark McMorris of Canada took the bronze.
Sandbech followed up his performance on the slopes by sporting a provocative, punk-style hair style on the podium. And he thought the slopestyle competition with its unconventional participants was a perfect way to start Olympic competition.
“We were a few rascals on the podium, myself included,” Sandbech told NRK afterwards. “It was just fun, not like the serious, concentrated, secretive Olympic athletes. We (snowboarders) aren’t as serious and secretive as the others. Well, we are serious, but we’re also buddies.” This year marked the first time snowboarding “slopestyle” was an Olympic sport.