PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) – The king is not dead, he’s just testing skis and being the best cheerleader he can be for his wife.
It wasn’t by choice, mind you.
Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, who is known in his sport as the “king of the biathlon,” would rather be participating in the Pyeongchang Games than watching them.
The Norwegian legend who has won 13 medals in the Winter Games – more than any man in history – didn’t qualify for his seventh Olympics.
But he’s here in Pyeongchang anyway trying to help his wife, biathlete Darya Domracheva of Belarus, win some medals and simply be there for support. Domracheva came through on Saturday night with a silver medal in the mass start and Bjoerndalen was beaming with pride.
“She was incredible,” Bjoerndalen said with a wide smile.
But there is a noticeable sadness in the king’s voice, too, knowing that he could be here as a competitor rather than just helping the Belarusians with waxing and testing their skis.
He said he’s tried to stay positive after being informed three weeks before the Olympic Games that he didn’t make the Norwegian team. It was a tough pill to swallow for the 44-year-old Bjoerndalen, who despite struggling in the World Cup season still believes he can compete with the best biathletes in the world.
“At first it was really hard for me because I was really prepared for this Olympics,” Bjoerndalen told The Associated Press in an interview. “I had too many problems in the summer and autumn so I could not do my preparations. But I’m in really good shape now, but that didn’t count toward the qualifications. That’s life.”
At the 2014 Sochi Games, Bjoerndalen won gold in sprint and mixed relay, taking his tally to eight gold medals at the Olympics.
Domracheva knows her husband is hurting ever since hearing the news he wouldn’t be participating in the Olympics.
“Of course for him, it would be much better if he could compete here also but he got over the situation,” Domracheva said. “Now he is enjoying being here, training a bit and helping our wax men. An extra pair of legs to test the skis.”
Bjoerndalen downplayed his role with the Belarusians, saying he is just trying to help out where he can.
“I did some ski tests and that’s all,” Bjoerndalen said. “They have a really good team and have good trainers and waxers. I can only help with the skiing.”
The Norwegians, meanwhile, have struggled a bit without Bjoerndalen in the biathlon.
Johannes Thingnes Boe, the No. 2-ranked biathlete in the world behind France’s Martin Fourcade, won gold in the men’s 20-kilometer individual race but has otherwise struggled and has missed medals in his other three events. Emil Hegle Svendsen managed a bronze medal in the 15-kilometer mass relay.
“It is really strange not having him here,” Svendsen said. “He has been in every world championships that I’ve been to. It was strange that all of a sudden I’m the oldest guy on the team.”
It’s even more difficult for Bjoerndalen knowing that fellow Norwegian Marit Bjoergen, who competes in women’s cross-country skiing, is in the verge of passing him as the most decorated Winter Olympian in history.
While the competitive Bjoerndalen said it’s a record he would have liked to have held on to as long as possible – and added to his career medal totals – he’s also supporting Bjoergen.
“For sure, I want to see her win,” Bjoerndalen said. “It will be really amazing. The career that Marit has had is really amazing. She is really strong. She has been doing it for so long and still she was amazing on the relay, so it’s great that she has two more chances to break it.”
Bjoergen has two chances to break the record before the games come end – in the team sprint relay on Wednesday and the mass start on Sunday.
“I think she will win at least one more gold – and maybe two more,” Bjoerndalen said of the 37-year-old Bjoergen.
Together, Bjoerndalen and Domracheva have 17 Olympic medals they can decorate their 1-year-old daughter Xenia’s room with. He’d love to see Domracheva add a few more before the Winter Games wrap up.
But right now his role is to just be there to cheer her on.
He was yelling to her on the final lap of her silver medal run in the women’s mass start. But for the most part, the couple just tries to enjoy their time together in Pyeongchang.
“We don’t speak about races, he just keeps me relaxed and happy,” Domracheva said.
Bjoerndalen didn’t talk about his future in the sport, but Svendsen said he has a sneaky suspicion that king of the biathlon isn’t quite ready to hang up his rifle.
“You know what, I have a feeling we will be seeing him again, even though he’s 44 years old,” Svendsen said.