Just hours before Wednesday’s 20-kilometer individual competition in Östersund, Sweden, Ole Einar Bjørndalen was expressing doubt about his season.
He wasn’t sure he would be selected for Norway’s World Championships team, he told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. The 41 year old lost six weeks of training this summer due to a respiratory infection.
But come race day – the first individual World Cup race of the season – the winningest Winter Olympian in history was back on his game.
Bjørndalen shot 20 for 20 and won the 20 k individual competition by 27.1 seconds over Simon Schempp of Germany, who had one penalty. Alexey Volkov of Russia was third, 38.2 seconds back, also with clean shooting.
It’s his 94th World Cup win in a notoriously up-and-down sport.
“It’s the best thing I could have done,” Bjørndalen told NRK after the race. “Everything works, so I’m very happy today.”
Inititial counts had taken this as his 95th victory. But the International Biathlon Union changed its rules prior to the 2014 Olympics so that Olympic gold medals are no longer counted as World Cup victories.
That means that Bjørndalen’s five individual Olympic gold medals from previous Games are counted in his tally, but his most recent one from Sochi is not.
“The [Olympics] are in many aspects, a different event than the typical World Cup event,” the IBU wrote in a press release explaining the situation. “The biggest difference is the number of athletes on the start. So called start quotas are not the same as in the World Cup circuit. For example: in biathlon, the top five nations in our sport (based on Nations Cup Score) are entitled to start up to 6 athletes but only 4 will get the right to start at the OWG… Bottom line: Bjørndalen has 94 official World Cup Biathlon victories.”
The veteran had a good race going, leading through three clean stages. He took his time on the final shooting stage, drawing a few deep breaths before taking the fourth shot. The King of Biathlon was cautious.
The fourth target was knocked down.
Another few deep breaths.
The fifth and last target fell.
Bjørndalen let out a shout of satisfaction before leaving the shooting range with a nearly 20-second lead on Volkov. While Schempp was able to move from third to second over the final four kilometer loop, Bjørndalen held his own and took the win comfortably.
His ski time was the 10th-fastest on the day.
“I had not expected that I would do so well, but I know I’m in good shape,” Bjørndalen told NRK. “I don’t have too many secrets. I have strong motivation. Maybe that’s the secret.”
Bjørndalen pumped his fists and celebrated at the finish line, a more emotional display than he sometimes puts on.
He had started with a late bib, as had Volkov, which meant that when Schempp crossed the finish line it had been with a big lead – well over a minute. At the time, a victory for the German had seemed very possible.
He had bumped out Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen and France’s Quentin Fillon Maillet, who ended up tied in a dead heat for fourth, 1:44 back from Bjørndalen and both with two penalties.
Bjørndalen had announced that he would retire after World Championships this season, which will be held in Oslo.
He had been thinking of calling it quits after the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where he won a gold medal in the sprint as well as in the mixed relay. But the home Championships were too tempting.
Now? His teammates think he could even go for one more Games.
“That’s impressive,” teammate Johannes Thingnes Bø, himself a World Champion, told Norway’s VG newspaper. “I cannot fathom him. It is unexpected that he wins, but in a way it’s not, either. He is Mr. Biathlon and is at home wherever he is in the world. I would not be surprised if he continues to 2018 either. Now he tastes the blood on his teeth.”
Bø’s older brother Tarjei agreed. Assumed to be the fittest and strongest Norwegian coming into Wednesday’s race, Bø instead finished 22nd and gave kudos to his older teammate.
“What is there to say?” he asked VG. “I am proud to be teammate Ole, with such a hard guy as he is. He comes back time and again. Today it is particularly impressive with the first races of the season, it’s challenging conditions and he has had a tough break in summer.”
Martin Fourcade of France says he’d believe anything.
“Before Sochi I said I didn’t think he could get gold anymore,” he told NRK. “I had to shut my mouth and apologize. So I won’t say anything anymore… To be honest, I think he’s going to continue until the Olympics in 2018. But he knows it’s not going to be every day that he wins races and gets the yellow bib. It must be a huge dilemma for him if he should continue or not.”
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.