After standing on the winners’ platform 256 times in the course of his 24-year-long sports career, Ole Einar Bjørndalen has reluctantly decided to retire after a disappointing winter that was plagued by heart trouble. Norway’s legendary biathlon skiing star was nearly overcome by emotion as he announced on Tuesday that this past season was his last.
“I would have gladly continued,” Bjørndalen told reporters at a press conference held in his old home community of Simostrand in Modum, around an hour’s drive west of Oslo. He had just claimed that “my motivation is completely unstoppable” and that he still has “a joy and the movitation to compete … that’s just incredible.” He had to add, though, that “this is my last season.”
It was the first time even his most ardent followers had seen the normally stoic and highly professional Bjørndalen fighting back tears. After having to take a break in his presentation to collect himself, he added: “I will manage this.”
Bjørndalen had continued to project himself as “unstoppable” in every way, even at the age of 44, and he had every intention of winning more gold at this year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. He revealed, however, that last summer he experienced what the Norwegians call hjerteflimmer (heart palpitations known as atrial fibrillation) for the first time.
“I had an episode that set me back a bit,” Bjørndalen said. He contended his condition was “absolutely not dangerous” and he and the medical team around him “got it under control.” Then there was “a new round” of the heart trouble though. “I responded well and had good help from my medical team, but I was always lagging behind,” he said.
That led to what Bjørndalen himself called a møkkasesong (terrible season) in which his best placement was 12th in a World Cup sprint. He failed to qualify for Norway’s Olympic team this year and told state broadcaster NRK after finishing 32nd in the last race of the season that “things have to go well and they haven’t this year.”
He claimed that he made the final decision to retire while taking time off for last week’s Easter holidays for the first time in 25 years, with family at Beitostølen in Norway. Bjørndalen candidly admitted how he’s otherwise refrained from taking part in either Christmas or Easter celebrations, for fear of eating something that might make him sick or being exposed to any other germs that would disrupt his strict and constant training regime. He said he’d almost always gone “far away into the mountains” somewhere, alone and working out, and that he’d actually forget holidays. That led him to sometimes call a coach or others on his team in the middle of their own Christmas Eve celebrations, for example, to ask a question or make a request, spoiling their holidays as well.
He thanked “the fantastic support apparatus” that’s been around him since he first debuted on the World Cup circuit in 1993, along with family and friends who have put up with his determined competitive resolve over the years. He ended up with 13 Olympic medals, 45 medals in the World Championship and a stunning 95 individual World Cup victories. He held the title of the most-winning Winter Olympian until Norwegian skier Marit Bjørgen surpassed him in the medal race this year.
His performance at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, where he won four gold medals, is considered his best. He said he’ll miss the thrill of competition the most, but is consoled by having received “lots of offers” to do other things that he now “will take some time to consider” before deciding on his next move.
“I am not tired (of competing), I am not satisfied (with all his victories), I am as motivated as ever,” he insisted. “But I want to taper off now, also on the wishes of my family.” He said it was “time to move forward, it’s a new time with new possibilities.”
The mayor of Modum was standing by with flowers and to thank Bjørndalen “for all the experiences you have given us.” Bjørndalen was also called upon to cut the customary Norwegian cakes that are an integral part of most any ceremonial event. Now he’ll be “training down,” Bjørndalen said, before he simply thanked those assembled for their attention.