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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Just 24 hours earlier, Emil Hegle Svendsen had nearly lost a gold medal in biathlon when he began celebrating his win in the 15 k mass start before crossing the finish line. The second-place racer, Martin Fourcade of France, lunged towards the line and only missed out by three hundredths of a second.
Today, Svendsen had a little more time to savor his victory. Entering the range with a more than 30-second lead, the Norwegian knocked down all five targets in quick succession and then raised his arms to the stands as he put his poles back on.
He still had 2.5 k to ski, but so what? He had plenty of time to keep celebrating. After a loop out on the course, where Svendsen took his sweet time, he waved to fans coming around the final downhill corner into the stadium. Then he played up the crowds as he coasted down the finishing stretch far ahead of the second-place team from the Czech Republic.
Svendsen later told NRK, a Norwegian television station, that he was looking for a Norwegian flag to carry across the line, but then became scared that such behavior was banned at the Olympics. (He may have been extra cautious because of the Norwegian ski team’s written reprimand from the International Olympic Committee for wearing black armbands.)
The man who had the most to celebrate, though, wasn’t so vocal.
Ole Einar Bjørndalen had raced the third leg for Norway, after Tora Berger and then Tiril Eckhoff combined to put the team in a dead heat for first place after the women’s legs were complete. Bjørndalen, who had earned his seventh Olympic gold medal in the Games’ opening sprint and had tied Norwegian skier Bjørn Dæhlie for the most medals in winter Olympic history with 12, skied the fastest course time of his leg and shot a perfect ten for ten.
He built a 43-second lead for Norway, which Svendsen got to simply savor as the anchor leg.
The gold medal for the team gave Bjørndalen a tie with Dæhlie for the most gold medals in winter Olympic history, and nudged his total medal haul up to 13, which nobody has ever matched. And he wasn’t just a tourist, at 40 years old, depending on the strength of his team – no, Bjørndalen made that gold medal.
And how does it feel to be the most decorated winter Olympian in history?
“It’s cool,” Bjørndalen shrugged in an in-venue TV interview, acting the typical reserved Scandinavian compared to Svendsen’s bravado. “Bjørn Dæhlie was a big hero to me.
Speaking to NRK after the race, Bjørndalen said that he still thinks Dæhlie is the better athlete.
“Clearly this record means a lot, and it’s a big achievement,” he said. “In his time, [Dæhlie ] had what I love about cross country skiing – the raw capacity. There is nobody in Norway who has had that capacity and the raw endurance talent that Dæhlie had.”
Meanwhile, his teammates were just thankful that Bjørndalen has remained a leader in their sport and their team.
“We’re all making history today,” Svendsen said in the press conference. “I think the whole team owes a big thanks to him. I think many of the things we think about in training is because of his extreme professionalism.”
“Ole’s amazing, what else can you say?” asked Eckhoff, who is 17 years younger than the legendary biathlete. “It’s amazing that we can be on the team with him today.”
Accolades aside, it was a remarkable race for Norway from start to finish, showing off what is possible in the mixed relay, a format which is new to the Olympics. With just two women and two men, a level of excellent performance is possible which is tougher to achieve with a full four-man or four-woman team.
Over the course of 40 targets, Norway used just two spare rounds to knock them all down. And in fact, both were used by Berger, the team’s scramble skier. Norway hit the next 30 targets in succession, a feat which has rarely been matched in relay racing.
“It was a fantastic achievement by everyone,” Berger, last year’s overall World Cup winner, told NRK. “It was really fun to go today.”
“It was really cool to be involved today,” agreed Eckhoff, the bronze medalist from the mass start who has never before been considered one of her country’s top two women and had only raced one mixed relay ever before.
The win was also a relief for Norway because, just as in cross country skiing, they had been having problems with ski preparation, which contributed to the team earning far fewer medals than had been projected.
And just like Marit Bjørgen and Ingvild Flugstad Østberg’s dominating win in the women’s team sprint today, the mixed relay gold brought an end to that disappointing drought.
“What has changed the most is that we have some better skis and our servicemen have found the problem with our material,” Svendsen said. “I think I can say a big thank you to our service team because it’s very important in skiing, as you can see in the last couple days. … This is the biggest race for that.”
The Czech Republic took silver to continue a remarkable Olympic campaign; it is their fifth medal of the Games in biathlon. Italy took bronze to earn their first Olympic medal since 1998.
—Nat Herz and Alex Matthews contributed reporting.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.