WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) — Ole Einar Bjoerndalen grabbed a giant Norwegian flag from a fan as he crossed the bridge leading to the stadium straightaway in the men's biathlon relay.
So brilliant was Bjoerndalen's final leg Friday that he was able to leisurely glide the final 150 meters, cradling the flag in his right arm and soaking it all in.
An Olympic champion again!
And just five days after calling his performances "horrible," prompting some to wonder if they would ever see him stand atop the medals podium again.
"It's a great feeling today," Bjoerndalen said after winning his sixth career gold medal. "For me, it was not optimum before the relay, but today, I forget everything. It's perfect for me."
As he crossed the finish line, he waved the flag high above his head and looked to the skies, snow fluttering across his face. The darling of the 2002 Salt Lake City Games flashed the million-dollar smile that sets off his movie-star good looks — the best biathlete in history was back in business.
Behind Bjoerndalen's blazing final leg, the Norwegians covered the Whistler Olympic Park course in 1 hour, 21 minutes, 38.1 seconds in steady snowfall.
Christoph Sumann edged Russia's Evgeny Ustyugov, giving Austria the silver. The Austrians were 38.6 seconds behind Norway. Russia was 38.8 seconds back for the bronze.
After Salt Lake, it seemed as if Bjoerndalen was a shoo-in to break Norwegian cross-country skier Bjoern Daehlie's Winter Olympics record of eight gold medals.
Then came Turin, four years later, and he found an encore elusive. He was done in both by Germany's Michael Greis and a severe cold that kept him bedridden for more than a week and badly disrupted his training program.
Coming off last year's world championships in South Korea, where he won three individual titles — giving him 14 — and anchored Norway's winning relay team, Bjoerndalen was once again among the favorites in every race at the Vancouver Games.
Once again, more heartache instead of victories.
He was hampered by a mid-race snowstorm that relegated him to 17th in the 10-kilometer sprint. He finished a distant seventh in the pursuit, where start times are based on the sprint finishes.
He reached the podium in the 20-kilometer individual race, taking the silver medal. But he finished a whopping 9.5 seconds behind teammate Emil Hegle Svendsen.
Then, his worst Olympic performance ever in the men's 15-kilometer mass start, where he missed an astonishing seven shots and was 27th of 30 athletes.
After that, he declared, "These Olympic Games are very disappointing for me. Horrible."
"Now, it's the perfect games for me," Bjoerndalen said.
After finishing fifth in Turin, the Norwegians made a gold medal in the Vancouver relay their No. 1 goal.
And with a dazzling race in which he blazed across the slushy snow and feverishly knocked down all 10 of his targets, the 36-year-old Bjoerndalen delivered, following outstanding performances by teammates Halvard Hanevold, Tarjei Boe and Svendsen.
This was Norway's eighth gold medal of the Vancouver Games.
Bjoerndalen now has 11 Olympic medals overall — one less than Daehlie — but this was his first Olympic victory since sweeping all four events in Salt Lake City. He won his first gold at the 1998 Nagano Games.
Bjoerndalen started the 7.5-kilometer anchor leg in first place this time, just 0.2 seconds ahead of Sumann. They skied into the range together for the prone shoot, where they both showed some nerves.
Bjoerndalen, whose shooting has been shaky these entire Olympics, missed two of seven shots — but Sumann missed four of eight — he blamed water in his diopter — and had to ski a penalty loop, dropping him into third, behind Ustyugov.
In the relay, competitors get eight bullets to hit five targets on each of their shoots. If they don't knock down all the targets, they have to ski a 150-meter penalty loop. After their five-bullet magazine is emptied, they have to hand-load .22-caliber bullets from their rifle stock, which takes eight to 10 seconds for each.
Ustyugov was 5 for 5 on the range and skied out 12.4 seconds behind Bjoerndalen, with Summan leaving the range 39 seconds after the leader.
"It was the most evil race of my life," Sumann said.
Still one of the fastest skiers on the circuit, Bjoerndalen opened a big lead and skied into the range for his standing shoot well ahead of his pursuers. This time, he shot cleanly, knocking down all five targets.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
The crowd cheering with each one.
As he slung his rifle over his shoulder and pushed off for the final leg, it was clear Bjoerndalen would win the gold. Beginning the final lap, Sumann was 45.6 seconds behind and Ustyugov was 46.8 seconds back. Trying to defend its title from Turin, Germany fell too far behind when Andreas Birnbacher missed five of eight standing shots on the second leg of the race. The Germans finished fifth.
Never a threat, the Americans finished 13th out of 19 countries.
Bjoerndalen's quest to surpass Daehlie isn't necessarily over.
He said he'll compete in Sochi in 2014, when he'll be 40.
"I will prepare the next four years and do my best and I will be in shape in Sochi," Bjoerndalen said.
Can he win gold again?
For inspiration, he needn't look far.
At 40, Hanevold on Friday became the oldest biathlete ever to win an Olympic gold medal.