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SOCHI, Russia — When Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen won his first Olympic medal, Google didn’t exist.
That was in 1998, when Bjoerndalen won gold in the sprint in Nagano, Japan.
Sixteen years later, Bjoerndalen, now 40, won again in the same event at the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia on Saturday — earning his seventh career gold and 12th Olympic medal, besting competitors half his age over 10 kilometers of skiing and two rounds of shooting.
Bjoerndalen’s result tied the record for the most career medals in the Winter Olympics, a mark that had been held by the Norwegian cross-country skier Bjoern Daehlie, who Bjoerndalen describes as “one of the biggest stars in Norway, and one of the biggest stars, total.”
But there’s no doubt that Bjoerndalen belongs in that same category — and his result Saturday only solidified that standing.
He won the race despite notching a penalty, edging out two men who ended up below him on the podium despite shooting clean — Austrian Dominik Landertinger and the Czech Republic’s Jaroslav Soukup, who trailed by 1.3 and 5.7 seconds, respectively.
Of the 87 men in the race, Bjoerndalen was the third fastest on his skis — behind only the French star Martin Fourcade and Russia’s Anton Shipulin, each of whom also had one penalty.
But what put Bjoerndalen atop of the podium was the combination of speed on skis with speed on the range: the Norwegian took his 10 shots in just 45 seconds. That was quicker than all but three other men, none of whom were as fast as Bjoerndalen on the course.
“They don’t call him the king for no reason,” said Leif Nordgren, an American biathlete who finished 45th, nearly two minutes behind Bjoerndalen.
Admiration for Bjoerndalen poured in from all sides — from teammates and competitors alike.
“He’s been my big idol since I was 10 years old, starting with this sport,” said Norway’s Tarjei Boe.
“He can step up to the plate and do it,” said American biathlete Lowell Bailey. “It’s pretty amazing.”
“If there’s one guy outside of our four that I wanted to see win, it was him,” said Canadian Scott Perras, looking more than a little bit starry eyed. “Forty years old, and what an inspiration.”
Perras recalled how the Canadians had held a pre-Olympic camp at the ski area in northern Italy where Bjoerndalen was training alone — where Perras said the Norwegian had asked workers to specially groom a meadow to prepare him for the courses in Sochi.
“Once the normal uphill ended, they added another section,” Perras said. “You’d just see him do his loop, go back up the hill, do his loop. So it’s no wonder.”
On Saturday, Bjoerndalen said he was worried his speed was beginning to falter in the later part of the race.
“But in the last uphill, I had some power in my legs,” he said.
His last Olympics, in 2010, had been moderately successful, as he earned a silver medal in the individual 20 k race, and a gold in the relay.
In the intervening years, however, he’d struggled with illness, as well as some of the inevitable aches and pains that come with aging: he blamed a back injury in 2011 on an attempt to cut down a tree that went awry.
(“I thought I could do it,” he said at the time. “But I got injured and lost several weeks.”)
What kept him going?
“Life is too short to give up,” Bjoerndalen said in a press conference after the race. “My motivation was never a problem, so I could keep on and do my training every day — and that was most important to why I am here today.”
This season will be Bjoerndalen’s last. But before it’s over, he’ll likely have several chances to break Daehlie’s record of 12 Olympic medals.
As of last week, he had not been promised a position on Norway’s relay team, which should win a medal barring a catastrophic collapse. But Bjoerndalen’s result Saturday should dramatically improve his chances of earning a spot, and he’ll start Monday’s pursuit in the lead.
In the mean time, his performance in the sprint will serve as something for his competitors to aspire to, according to Perras, the Canadian.
“Just to see him train, how focused and dedicated he was,” Perras said, referring to his time watching Bjoerndalen at the Italian ski area. “He’s just really pushing the sport, still.”
–Alex Matthews and Chelsea Little contributed reporting.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.