The first big chinks in Ole Einar Bjoerndalen’s armor showed up at the 2010 Olympics, where his two-medal performance was eclipsed by the three podiums collected by his Norwegian teammate, Emil Hegle Svendsen.
Bjoerndalen, 36, was charitable at the time, as befitted a living legend with nearly three-dozen World Championships medals to his name. And there was no sense that he felt threatened by Svendsen—after all, the three medals that Svendsen won in Vancouver represented his career total, while Bjoerndalen has nine more in his quiver.
But after Svendsen’s red-hot start to the year, in which he won the first two World Cup races of the season over Bjoerndalen in Ostersund, Sweden, one could sense Bjoerndalen’s grip on the sport loosening just a little—and he didn’t like it. After his crash on the final corner of Saturday’s sprint gifted Svendsen the win, Bjoerndalen was furious, angrily throwing his poles to the ground and storming out of the finish pen.
So while Bjoerndalen’s victory in Sunday’s pursuit wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things—he has a whopping 92 World Cup wins to his name—he seemed to relish it a little more than usual, as it finally gave him the opportunity to put Svendsen, 25, back in his place. At least for now.
After hanging doggedly with Svendsen for three quarters of the 12.5 k pursuit in Ostersund, matching him shot for shot, Bjoerndalen dropped his teammate on the final shooting stage, when an errant bullet by Svendsen went low and left. With one penalty to Svendsen’s two, Bjoerndalen was free and clear to ski in for the win.
“I knew exactly what Emil was shooting. I heard every shot hit the target, so I knew he missed two,” Bjoerndalen said.
Slovenia’s Jakov Fak was third, but he finished a full minute back, and never challenged the two Norwegians. Jean Philippe LeGuellec was the top North American in 13th, with one penalty, and Tim Burke was the top U.S. biathlete, in 32nd.
The focus of the television cameras rarely strayed from the top two, though, as the race was a battle between Bjoerndalen and Svendsen from the gun. Biathlon pursuit races are handicapped using the results from a sprint, usually held a day or two earlier, and on Sunday, Svendsen left first, with a four-second advantage over Bjoerndalen. France’s Martin Fourcade, a strong podium threat, started third, but four penalties over the course of the day took him out of contention.
Pursuits feature four shooting stages, but by the time Svendsen finished his first loop and glided into the range, Bjoerndalen had already closed the gap. The two slung off their rifles, took their prone positions side-by-side, and both shot clean. They left the range together, Bjoerndalen shadowing Svendsen, whose skiing had been slightly faster in races earlier this week.
The two Norwegians went stride-for-stride on the second lap, and the third, too. They were also nearly flawless in shooting—both cleaned the second stage, and had just one penalty on the third.
The fourth lap would be the difference-maker: if Svendsen could equal Bjoerndalen in the shooting, it was unlikely that the elder Norwegian would be able to hold on for the final lap. But after matching the veteran through four shots, Svendsen’s very last bullet was off-target, leaving Bjoerndalen the opening he needed. Afterwards, Svendsen blamed his inaccuracy on the weather.
“I had a little bit of trouble in standing. The wind was a problem,” he said. “When you are so close to winning…the worst thing is missing that last shot.”
Svendsen had to ski one more penalty loop than Bjoerndalen, which set him back more than 20 seconds. That was enough time for Bjoerndalen to ease up when he neared the finish line, pointing, as he passed by to the spot in the corner where he crashed on Saturday.
““I took a little break there today, so I could look at that place,” he said.
Afterwards, the tension between the two Norwegians boiled over, as Svendsen called Bjoerndalen “cowardly” for not once taking the lead.
“I would certainly [think] that he should contribute a little, but he was apparently not interested,” Svendsen told the Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
Bjoerndalen acknowledged that he had spent minimal time in the wind, but that, he told NRK, was a tactic he’d learned from years of racing in cross-country competitions.
“I was not as strong as he was—I had to run my race,” Bjoerndalen said.
Despite Bjoerndalen’s win on Sunday, though, Svendsen still leaves Ostersund with the yellow bib of the overall World Cup leader. He said that he’s not interested in giving it up, though with Bjoerndalen just six points behind, Svendsen will surely have his hands full next week.
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.