21.02.2014, Sochi, Russia (RUS): Ole Einar Bjoerndalen (NOR) - XXII. Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, biathlon, medals, Sochi (RUS). www.nordicfocus.com. © NordicFocus. Every downloaded picture is fee-liable.
Ole Einar Bjørndalen with his medals from the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. Photo: Nordic Focus

After more than a quarter century at the top level, Ole Einar Bjørndalen hangs up his competition rifle and parks his skis.

The 44-year-old wishes he could say he wanted to step down. He doesn’t. He retires out of consideration to his family and his health.

“I wish I could say I’ve had enough, that I’m tired of racing and want to quit. But I’m not. I am retiring out of health and family considerations, after advice from my medical team,” Bjørndalen explained, adding that he has not yet made a decision about what he will do next.

“I have an incredible passion and motivation for sports. I wish I could continue my career for several more years, but this is my last season.”

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Ole Einar Bjørndalen (NOR) heading for a bronze medal in the pursuit at the 2017 IBU World Championships in Hochfilzen (AUT). Photo: Nordic Focus
Ole Einar Bjørndalen (NOR) heading for a bronze medal in the pursuit at the 2017 IBU World Championships in Hochfilzen (AUT). Photo: Nordic Focus

At the press conference, when he announced his retirement on April 3, Bjørndalen told reporters he has suffered from atrial fibrillation for ten years, a heart condition that can affect endurance athletes. During the preparations for the 2018 Olympics last fall, this became an issue for him, interfering with his training and health.

“Atrial fibrillation is something you can live just fine with, but it’s not ideal when you are competing at the very top level. It keeps you from training the way you plan, and it sets you back each time it occurs. I have had an amazing career and reached everything anyone can dream of. So I think this was the right decision at this point,” Bjørndalen told reporters.

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Ole Einar Bjørndalen helping out with ski testing at Beitostølen (NOR). Photo: Per Wiik
Ole Einar Bjørndalen helping out with ski testing at Beitostølen (NOR). Photo: Per Wiik

Amazing career
The 44-year-old Norwegian is the most winning biathlete in history. He has more Olympic medals and World Champion titles than anyone. But becoming the World Champion on home turf in Holmenkollen, Norway, in 2016 was the jewel in the crown. In 2017, he won his 45th World Championship medal when he took bronze in Hochfilzen (AUT).

The past couple of seasons have brought some significant changes to Bjørndalen’s life. In the summer of 2016 he married Belarus biathlete Darya Domratcheva. On October 1, 2016, he became a father for the first time.

In February 2018, he attended his seventh Olympic Winter Games, his first as a non-competing athlete. However, in Pyeong Chang (KOR), Bjørndalen helped coach his wife to two medals: The gold in the women’s relay and the silver in the 12.5-kilometer mass start.

“We support each other in everything we do, so to see her reach her goals is amazing,” Bjørndalen said after Domratcheva’s relay gold on the last day of the Winter Games in South Korea.

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Ole Einar Bjørndalen earned his last World Championship medal in the pursuit at the 2017 IBU World Championships in Hochfilzen (AUT). Photo: Nordic Focus
Ole Einar Bjørndalen earned his last World Championship medal in the pursuit at the 2017 IBU World Championships in Hochfilzen (AUT). Photo: Nordic Focus

“A different sport than when I started”
After a quarter century at the top level the King of Biathlon takes some time to reflect on the changes and developments in the sport.

He believes both the improvements in equipment and increasing professionalism among the racers have contributed to raising the overall level in the World Cup field.

“The overall level of the athletes has changed a lot. When I first started, there were a lot fewer who skied really fast,” Bjørndalen.

One of the biggest changes was the transition from coarse bore to fine bore rifles. That happened about five years before Bjørndalen entered the World Cup.

“We have used the same weapon and the same mechanical setup during the entire time I’ve been active,” Bjørndalen says, noting that the weapon change made the shooting times drop significantly.

“Eirik Kvalfoss would use a minute to shoot one series. Today, none of the best racers use more than 20 seconds,” Bjørndalen points out.

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Biathlon - Olympic Winter Games 2006 - Torino (ITA): Ole Einar Bjoerndalen (NOR)
Biathlon – Olympic Winter Games 2006 – Torino (ITA): Ole Einar Bjoerndalen (NOR)

Better equipment
But according to Bjørndalen, the evolution of the equipment has been the biggest driving factor in advancing biathlon.

“With the skis in particular, it seems like there is a small revolution almost every season,” Bjørndalen says.

“Skis are now a lot lighter, more stable and faster, and there are entirely different materials used for both bases and construction than when I first started racing,” Bjørndalen says.

In his mind, moving to shorter, flatter tips is one of the biggest improvements in skis, and Bjørndalen was a big part of making that change.

“I was one of the first to cut my tips, and I shortened them by 5 centimeters. That cut delivers a much faster return of the ski, and you’re ready to make a new push and stride sooner. We beat Fischer to the punch on that. I cut my tips about two weeks before they were going to launch their hole-tip. I’ve been told that this caused a bit of chaos and confusion at Fischer. They didn’t know what to think of my tips,” Bjørndalen recalls.

Ski boots have also made leaps since Bjørndalen started racing, becoming both stiffer and lighter and better suited for skating. The biggest jump is moving to carbon in the boot construction, Bjørndalen says.

“With the new integrated carbon sole construction that came last season, the boots are even stiffer and still lighter, and with less material, you better contact with the snow and more control of the ski,” he explains.

The combination of all these improvements in the equipment has contributed to that the biathletes both ski and shoot faster than when Bjørndalen first started racing, without taking away from the job that the athletes put in day after day.

Bjørndalen also points out that the athletes now put in far more training hours both at the range and on physical conditioning than when he entered the World Cup back in the 1990s.

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Ole Einar Bjørndalen discussing the details with Madshus product developer Svein Ivar Moen - during a testing session in Sjusjøen (NOR) in April 2017. Photo: Stefano Zatta
Ole Einar Bjørndalen discussing details with Madshus product developer Svein Ivar Moen while testing in Sjusjøen (NOR) in April 2017. Photo: Stefano Zatta

Product development adds a dimension
The seasoned veteran is known to constantly seek out new insights and research on everything from training and equipment to diet and lifestyle, just to gain that split second margin that separates the winner from the rest of the field. That approach applies to equipment as well as training and lifestyle.

The involvement with the factory and the Madshus product development team is important and valuable for Bjørndalen. For him, being able to share his experiences and contribute to advance the sport gives his an added dimension and motivates him.

“You can put is this way: Sport is training, and equipment is development. Biathlon is still a young sport, and there is a lot more to gain. To be a part of that development is extremely exciting to me,” Bjørndalen explains.

“Being an active part of the research and development, and being included and involved in all the processes is a major reason why I switched equipment. Madshus is really on the cutting edge of equipment, they are extremely good at research and development and the process from idea to innovation is fast,” Bjørndalen says.

“With Madshus, you call and discuss an idea, and 24 hours later, their product engineers are after it. With other brands, it can take weeks,” he explains.

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen (NOR) earned his 45th World Championship medal in the pursuit in Hochfilzen (AUT). Photo: Nordic Focus
Ole Einar Bjoerndalen (NOR) earned his 45th World Championship medal in the pursuit in Hochfilzen (AUT). Photo: Nordic Focus