IBU at 30 Years: Through Bjoerndalen’s Eyes

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen made his World Cup debut just a few months before the founding of the IBU on July 3, 1993. Bjoerndalen’s 28th place in the 20 km individual only hinted at the 19-year-old’s potential on the road to biathlon legend status. At the same time, the boundless potential of the IBU and biathlon was equally a pie-in-the-sky dream. Over the past 30 years, both Bjoerndalen and the sport reached heights very few imagined in 1993.

Header iconOle Einar Bjoerndalen through the Years

Bjoerndalen reflected on how the sport grew from three competitions in 1993 with small crowds and little television into the global phenomena of today. “We surely dreamed about this, but biathlon was a small sport even in Norway; Alpine and cross-country were bigger. In the 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Games, France Germany and Russia were very good in biathlon and Norway was very bad. After that, biathlon went step-by-step and today is developing so fast. We are not at the end, there is more possible.”

Late night discussion, passion and the pursuit

“In 93 and 94, there was only the 10 km sprint, 20 km individual and the relay. The Norwegian team had a small media following. In the mid-nineties, late one night TV commentators Kjell Kristian Rike and John Herwig Carlsen, director Andreas Lauterbach and the IBU President were discussing the future, trying to develop a new discipline for our sport. I was very impressed. They had such huge passion and were the main brains to create different disciplines in our sport. If it was not for them I am not sure we would be what we are today. These 3 or 4 guys did a crazy step in the right way. When they proposed this discipline (pursuit), we athletes were quite positive, but when Rike and Lauterbach started talking about afternoon races, the athletes were very negative. We were used to morning races and afternoons for recovery. After a while with this change, we saw interest in the sport grow.”

Importance of Prize Money

As new competition formats dramatically changed the face of biathlon, the introduction of prize money was a crucial growth step from the athlete’s perspective. “It was very important, because we only earned money with good results, not from prize money but from marketing/sponsors. It was almost impossible to get a sponsor before you had a World Championship of Olympic title. Then it started to go. Otherwise, you went to university and were a professional biathlete on the side, living off the government (student) subsidy and a small amount from the federation. So, it was very important to bring in prize money and… that the prize money was the same for women and men…Today, even in the IBU Cup races, there is very good prize money. You can earn good money in the second level not just in the World Cup races, this is a huge step.”

First World Cup, “amazing how fast you learn”

When the eventual six-time World Cup Total Score winner began his career in the IBU’s early days, prize money was far from his mind. “I was a smart 19-year-old. I never thought about results, but looked at the long picture and developing as an athlete. In my first World Cup I was far from that level; I was just lucky as a junior to take part. I learned a lot in the first race, got a lot of motivation and saw where I needed to go. Having a chance to talk with the best in the world was a great experience…I needed to improve, but when you get it thrown in your face, feeling the athletes when they are skiing faster and shooting better than you, it is amazing how fast you learn!”

Part of Bjoerndalen’s learning curve and growth in the sport came from improvements in materials. “The material changed constantly, from the bullets to the rifle to skis to boots to poles to ski suits. That was interesting to me because I got good results fast. My mission was to develop the sport and make it more interesting: faster skis, faster shooting. I never tired of this; I saw huge potential. Every time I had a good result, I found something else to work on. It was not just results; my passion was in this development of the sport.”

Lessons from Fritz Fischer

In a few short years with biathlon growing into a media darling, the Norwegian went from wide-eyed rookie to 1998 Olympic Sprint Gold medalist and then to legend, sweeping to four Gold medals at the 2002 Salt Lake City OWG. A few extremely important lessons shaped Bjoerndalen. “1994, 95, 96, I was a good athlete, the best junior, but was not stable. My biggest problem when I came to the World Cup was that I had no level on the shooting range. I was lucky to go to Germany in the summer and train with Ricco Gross and Fritz Fischer. I remember it like yesterday. I was a good standing shooter. Fritz taught me to have high pressure on the trigger. The higher the pressure, the better chance to hit the target. This finger training from him was fantastic. He was so far ahead of anyone in Norway; no one was thinking like him. That lesson was for standing but I brought that back to prone. Also, in prone, if you catch the right position, your grandmother can hit the targets because it is so simple!”

Buy a vacuum cleaner; get a lifetime mental coach

To become a champion biathlete, Bjoerndalen added a new completely unheard-of component to his training, a mental coach. Earlier this year, he said, “I think it is very important to have the courage to go your own way. My federation did not understand why I needed a mental coach. Now this is quite normal but (in 1996) they thought I was totally crazy.”

Elaborating recently, he added, “I was a huge talent in endurance sports: huge capacity, light and strong for my body weight…But my mental state was not good. I met a retired ski jumper from Vikersund who said I should call with one of his friends. I was always sick and needed to clean my hotel room to stay healthy. He told me this guy can help you with a machine, which is not the important part. I got the vacuum cleaner, but that man became my mental coach from 1996 until today. This guy had little experience with sport, actually zero. But he had a system to reach the goal, how to build up the way (to success). I taught him about sport and he showed me the way. I went to this guy for a vacuum cleaner with no thought of him becoming my mental coach. That was pure luck.”

“Sport was pure happiness!”

Success in every aspect of biathlon were the hallmarks of Bjoerndalen’s long career. From the outside, it was seemingly built on attention to detail, but actually, “from inside, it came from my crazy driven passion for the sport, waking up every day you go on with smart, hard training. I had 30 years at a quite high level. I never had a heavy day that I hated the sport and hated going to training. I never saw my sport as a job…never in my whole life. It was always like a hobby because in the beginning I could not live from it. I had to live from organizing sponsors and networks; that was my job. Sport was pure happiness!”

IBU Hall of Fame

That “pure happiness” in 580 World Cup starts, 44 IBU WCH medals, six World Cup Total Score titles and 13 (including 8 Gold) Olympic medals earned Ole Einar Bjoerndalen the title, “King of Biathlon” and most recently a place in the IBU Hall of Fame. Humbly accepting the honor and thanking the IBU, he showed his appreciation for the Biathlon Family that has been such a huge part of his life., ‘It is so nice to see so many athletes and members of the biathlon circus; I really enjoy seeing everyone.”

“My whole dream from 12 years”

Coming to the sport in the IBU’s infancy, Bjoerndalen matured and became a superstar as biathlon grew, remaining deeply involved today as a coach and television commentator. Thinking about his journey, he recalled the dreams of a young boy in Simostranda. “I was dreaming about this at 12-years-old. At that time, I was a farmer and did not want to be a farmer in the future. I wanted to live from biathlon and be the best biathlete in the world. I did not know at 12 that this would change my life. The dream was there and it came true. I was 100% sure that I would win World Championships, but 40 medals or 13 Olympic medals, never in my whole life could I think about that…never… or have so many World Cup victories…never. But that sport would change my life; that was my whole dream from 12 years on!”

Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni, Rene Miko, Jerry Kokesh, IBU Archive

Share this article

Header iconSign up for our newsletter