No Olympic ‘wildcard’ for Bjørndalen

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UPDATED: At an age of 43, Norway’s biathlon star Ole Einar Bjørndalen wanted, and was convinced he could still win, more medals at the upcoming Olympics in South Korea. Norwegian coaches didn’t agree and cut him from the country’s national team for the first time in 24 years. Slim hopes for a wildcard (free spot) from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have been dashed as well.

Ole Einar Bjørndalen (second from left) was still winning medals in 2016, like here as part of Norway’s men’s relay team at the World Championships at Holmenkollen. Now he’s been cut from the Olympic team heading for South Korea, while his three teammates here (Emil Hegle Svendsen and the Bø brothers, Johannes and Tajei) have all qualified. PHOTO: Oslo2016/Eirin Roseneng

“We don’t hand out wildcards for the Winter Olympics,” the IOC wrote in an email to newspaper Dagbladet on Wednesday. State broadcaster NRK had reported the possibility of participation in the sprint Tuesday evening, but now it looks like that won’t happen after all.

Top national team coaches had already determined that Bjørndal’s performance so far this season had not qualified him for the team, for the first time since the Olympics at Lillehammer in 1994.

“It’s too bad that I don’t get to take part,” Bjørndalen told TV2 Sporten after it was official: He was cut from the team, and he disagrees with the coaches’ decision. On the other hand, the skier and shooter who’s often called legendary for winning record numbers of medals over the years, has been competing on overtime for years. “This day had to come, and now it’s here,” Bjørndalen said.

Liv Grete Skjelbreid, another former Norwegian biathlon star, said she thought it was sad Bjørndalen was cut from the team heading for South Korea. “My first thought was that it will also be sad to watch an Olympics without Ole Einar Bjørndalen on the starting line,” said Skjelbreid, who now serves as an expert commentator for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “But when you see the results so far this year, there’s nothing to indicate that he was even close to winning medals, despite all his experience.”

Ole Einar Bjørndalen still thought he could win more medals, but coaches disagreed. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Norwegian athletics chief Tore Øvrebø said it was difficult to eliminate the most-winning Winter Olympics athlete of all time, but coaches had not ranked him as good enough for the biathlon team. That led to “thorough discussions with the biathlon management,” during which the coaches were challenged over their evaluation. NRK reported that top leadership was skeptical, and wanted Bjørndalen at the Olympics. The decision to cut Bjørndalen was nonetheless upheld.

He was predictably disappointed, claiming he was just as motivated now as he was before the Olympics 24 years ago. He holds 13 Olympic medals, eight of them in gold, plus 20 World Championship titles and another 25 silver and bronze medals. He also has scored 95 individual victories in World Cup biathlon competition plus one in cross-country skiing.

He struggled this season, though, and was out-classed by fellow biathlon veterans Johannes Thingnes Bø, Emil Hegle Svendsen and Tarjei Bø, who all have qualified for the team. It remained unclear whether Bjørndalen will now retire from the sport he dominated for more than two decades.

“I can take medals at the Olympics,” Bjørndalen told NRK on Monday, “but it’s others who select the team. I have not shown myself to be in good shape, and have delivered poor results.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund