Who is the mightiest of them all? The ultimate riddle deserves to be addressed right now, the day after the official closure of the 2017–18 skiing season (so far as yours truly is concerned). Which one is the greatest Nordic skier ever, Marit Bjørgen or her fellow Norwegian Bjørn Dæhlie?
While Bjørgen recently overtook Dæhlie as the most decorated Winter Olympian ever, medals, trophies or even prize money should by no means count as the only criteria of greatness. Phone calls matter too.
Back in 2002, a phone call interrupted Mika Myllylä’s lunch during a training camp somewhere in northern Finland. The Finnish world and Olympic champion had incurred a two-year ban in 2001 owing to a drug offense, and his toughest rival Dæhlie, among other colleagues, had deemed it fit to moralize at his expense. On the phone, however, the Norwegian ace apologized for his harsh words and expressed sympathy for the beleaguered Finn.
Alas, Mika Myllylä is no longer with us – he died in 2011 – and Bjørn Dæhlie might not be willing to elaborate on the noble call that, in my book, sealed his position as the greatest skier ever. But how do I know that the discussion actually took place?
My sources are impeccable, as the hard-nosed journalists put it. Myllylä divulged the main points of the phone call to a skier who happened to share lunch with him. For circumstantial evidence, consider Inge Bråten’s equally generous gesture during the infamous 2001 world championships hosted by Lahti. A few days before Myllylä’s disqualification, another Finn – Jari Isometsä – tested positive and went on to announce his retirement from competitive skiing in a widely covered press conference.
The media people immediately labelled Isometsä as a ‘disgraced’ athlete, and prodded by sanctimonius journalists, some fellow athletes too denounced him as a ‘drugs cheat.’ Judging by Inge Bråten’s reaction, however, every serious skier must have felt pity – mere pity – for the unlucky Finn. The legendary Norwegian coach and Dæhlie’s mentor fought his way through the crowd, spread his arms and embraced Isometsä as he walked out of the press conference. In doing so, Bråten also whispered something into his ear.
What did the esteemed coach and commentator, arguably the main architect of today’s Norwegian skiing hegemony, have to say to the ‘disgraced’ Finn? Thankfully, Isometsä provided an immediate translation to a curious Finnish TV journalist (3:20).
‘Inge Bråten said, “You’re the finest skier I’ve ever known.” That means a lot coming from Norway’s former head coach.’
Let us savor Dæhlie’s momentous message and Bråten’s beautiful, enlightened words – especially when the next ‘drug scandal’ erupts and athletes are cajoled to heap dirt on their luckless colleagues!