OLYMPICS: BIATHLON; Fourth Gold Medal For a Positive Thinker
By CHARLIE LeDUFF
Published: February 21, 2002
MIDWAY, Utah, Feb. 20— Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, a Norwegian biathlete, won his fourth gold medal of the 2002 Winter Olympics today, proving that skis, a gun, a guru and a vacuum cleaner make for a great champion.
Bjoerndalen (pronounced BYORN-dahl-en) anchored Norway's gold-medal-winning 4x7.5 relay team, completing a sweep of the four biathlon competitions. He is the first person to complete the sport's grand slam and only the third person to win four gold medals in one Winter Games. The American Eric Heiden won five in speedskating in 1980.
Though he fell on a downhill stretch and missed three shots today, Bjoerndalen's performance at these Games has elevated him to rock-star status in his home country, where the combined art of skiing and shooting ranks second only to soccer.
''I told the skier to move left and he didn't move left, so I fell,'' Bjoerndalen said. ''My shooting wasn't perfect, but the other guys gave me a good lead.''
Bjoerndalen was an inconsistent performer as recently as six years ago. He was considered a rock of talent with pebbles for nerves. Then he met Oyvind Hammer, a vacuum cleaner and air purifier salesman from his hometown, Trondheim, Norway.
Hammer, a high-energy pitchman of Filter Queen brand vacuums and a part-time motivational speaker, has become Rasputin in Bjoerndalen's court.
''I speak with him every day,'' Bjoerndalen said. ''It's normal.''
Bjoerndalen helped the Norwegians finish the relay 45.3 seconds ahead of the favored German team today.
In a surprise, the French took third by outshooting the powerful Russians, whose coaches cursed and smoked incessantly as their team faded in the final two legs.
The United States, not a biathlon powerhouse, had a respectable showing at 15th.
The relay teams are made up of four competitors; each skis 7.5 kilometers and must stop at the shooting range twice. There are two sequences at the shooting range, prone and standing, and each biathlete has eight rounds of ammunition to hit five targets.
The most crucial leg for the Norwegians was turned in by Frode Andresen, an excellent skier but lackluster marksman. He ran second, and in a bit of Alpine chess, the Germans matched him with Peter Sendel, a sharpshooter.
Andresen, who is a son of a diplomat and speaks seven languages, is criticized by the Norwegians for being too cerebral for the sport. If the race was to be won or lost, it sat in Andresen's crosshairs.
Though Andresen missed three shots, Sendel missed two and Andresen stretched the lead by 30 seconds.
''It's a struggle, good against evil in your head,'' Andresen said of his shooting problems. ''Today, I did a good race.''
Andresen's adventures at the range are similar to those that Bjoerndalen, 28, once endured. That was all before Bjoerndalen met Hammer. Reached by telephone at his home in Norway, Hammer said there was a definite similarity between selling expensive vacuum cleaners and selling an athlete on his maximum potential.
''How do you get a salesman to get his top results?'' Hammer asked. ''Sales and shooting are the same thing. You can't be negative if you don't make the sale. You go on to the next one and concentrate on that. It is the same thing with the rifle.''
The biathlon is considered by many to be the most physically and emotionally demanding of all winter sports. It requires an athlete to ski with abandon on the cross-country course, then regroup and calm himself at the firing range and hit a target 50 meters away with a heart pounding at 180 to 190 beats a minute. Add to that the thin air in Soldier Hollow, nearly a mile above sea level, making it the highest biathlon course in the world.
''Think of running around your house five times and then trying to thread a needle,'' said Jerry Kokesh, director of development of the United States Biathlon program. ''It's no joke. You have to have control of both your body and your subconscious.''
Often ridiculed in the United States as a freak sport, the biathlon has its roots in Nordic warfare.
It began in 18th-century Scandinavia, with men lugging muskets on skis. The Finns repelled Soviet invaders from 1939 to 1944, though they were heavily outnumbered. The biathlon first appeared in the Olympics in 1928 as a demonstration sport called military patrol.
The first medal for the sport was awarded in 1960 at the Squaw Valley Games in California. Norway had never won a gold in the relay before today.
So now Bjoerndalen will return home a hero. His friend Hammer sees potential in the whole thing.
''Maybe mental training coaches will get more respect,'' said Hammer, the perpetual salesman. ''And think about this: when I met him, he wasn't the superstar he is now. He didn't have money for a good vacuum or air purifier. I gave him a good deal and now look.''
The biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway became the third person to win four gold medals at one Winter Games. (Associated Press)