SOCHI, Russia: Norwegian biathlon star Ole Einar Bjoerndalen on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) became the greatest Winter Olympian in history by taking a record 13th medal with gold in the mixed relay at the Sochi Games.
Bjoerndalen, 40, now holds the record outright for the most medals at Winter Games after overtaking his compatriot, the cross-country ski legend Bjoern Daehlie, who won 12 medals.
Bjoerndalen has now also won eight gold medals at Winter Olympics, equalling Daehlie’s own record.
In an astonishingly long career for an endurance athlete, Bjoerndalen won his first medals at the 1998 Nagano Olympics in Japan.
Only US swimmer Michael Phelps and Soviet gymnasts Larissa Latynina and Nikolai Andrianov have won more medals at Summer or Winter Olympics.
In a sign of his appetite for victory, Bjoerndalen now has eight golds, four silvers and just one bronze.
With a star-studded team of Bjoerndalen and Emil Hegle Svendsen for the men’s legs and Tora Berger and Tiril Eckhoff for the women’s, Norway’s victory hardly ever appeared in doubt during the mixed race.
Svendesen was so far ahead after his final shooting he had time to pause and raise his hands up in triumph in front of the fans.
Bjoerndalen celebrated his historic medal with an impeccable shooting performance, missing no targets in either the prone or the standing positions.
“It’s cool. It’s a big thing for me,” he said of the record afterwards with characteristic understatement.
Berger, who took the first leg, said she had tied not to dwell on the historic importance of the event ahead of the race.
“I didn’t think about history, I just think it’s good to get gold,” she said.
Never give up
Bjoerndalen had begun the Sochi Games in blazing style, taking gold in the sprint event but then faded in the next three races.
He still has one more chance for another gold in the men’s relay on Saturday and if he wins would also overtake Daehlie’s record for the most golds.
The Czech Republic took a strong silver medal but were 32.6sec behind the Norwegians. The Italian team screamed with delight after taking a surprise bronze.
This was the first time the mixed relay has been run in the Games and the event has proved a hit with fans, mixing the big stars of men’s and women’s biathlon.
Ever his own greatest critic, Bjoerndalen had been bitterly disappointed by his performance in the men’s mass start race on Tuesday where he finished in 22nd place after a disastrous final standing shooting.
His winning of the gold with Svendsen, 28, who is seen in Norway as the heir to Bjoerndalen’s crown, is highly symbolic given the pair have had difficult relations over the last years.
Bjoerndalen’s record is particularly extraordinary given that he took relatively thin pickings from the Games in Turin 2006 and Vancouver 2010 after four golds from the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
The relay was the latest disaster in the biathlon at Sochi for hosts Russia, coming in fifth place 1min 47sec off the pace and their team and coaches can now expect a volley of recrimination in the press.