By Julien Pretot
PARIS, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Biathlon great Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, a precocious talent as a youngster, is looking to end his Olympic career at 40 with a record medal tally.
The Norwegian, who made his World Cup debut in 1994, has 11 Olympic medals but has compatriot and cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie's Games record of 12 in his sights in his final Olympics appearance.
Although his form may prevent a podium finish in the individual events, the relays could give him what he needs.
Norway, with Bjoerndalen in their ranks every time, have won all five world championsips and Olympic relays since 2009.
Bjoerndalen, taking part in his sixth Games, will draw hope from the fact that a mixed men's and women's relay has been included in Sochi.
His attitude is his best asset, according to Liv Grete, a seven-time world champion and three-time Olympic medallist, who was in the same sports school as Bjoerndalen in the early 1990s in Geilo.
"We were training a lot together and we made the Norwegian team together. It was a lot of training and a lot of hard work," Grete told Reuters.
Hard work quickly paid off for Bjoerndalen, who claimed his first World Cup win in 1996.
No surprise there.
"At 15, he was already a professional, he was already way ahead of all the others in the way he was apprehending the sport," Grete recalled.
"You have to have a huge respect for what he's achieved, keeping the same motivation for 20 years.
"What is impressive is that he still has got this taste for competition after all these years, and that he is not afraid of failing.
"People just cannot imagine the amount of motivation it takes," added Grete, who quit the sport at the age of 31 in 2006.
Whether Bjoerndalen can beat Daehlie's record will likely depend on whether he can make the relay teams.
"There is some fierce competition as everyone wants a spot," said Grete. "But he has the experience and he has a real chance of making the team, even if others' form will be a factor, too."
Emil Hegle Svendsen and the Boe brothers, Tarjei and Johannes Thingnes, are expected to be included in the team, with the last spot being decided between Bjoerndalen and a few other contenders.
Third place in the 10-km individual sprint in Hochfilzen, Austria, and second place in the 10-km individual sprint in Oberhof, Germany, this season, showed that despite his age, Bjoerndalen remains a formidable opponent.
"Until 2010 there was no contest, he was by far much better than me," Frenchman Martin Fourcade, the five-times world champion and current World Cup leader, told Reuters.
"He was not a role model but more of an idol. I still remember how proud I was when he came to congratulate me after I had won my second World Cup even in Oslo (in the 2009-10 season)."
According to Fourcade, Bjoerndalen's appetite for competition is his main advantage.
"Time has no hold on his desire to compete and his motivation. Although his results are far from his usual standards, he does not seem to wear down and still has the hunger of a young wolf," he explained.
"He keeps reinventing himself. That is why I admire him so much."
His capacity to keep focus is also a big asset.
"My best memory of him is when he won (the 10-km sprint) at the Nagano Games (in 1998). He was leading and the race had been cancelled," Grete recalled.
"Well, he still won it the day after."
There is one minor stain on Bjoerndalen's resume, which he apologised for.
He failed to report his whereabouts to anti-doping authorities last October, omitting to tell the Austrian Anti-Doping Agency he had extended a stay in Norway by a week.
"It should not happen and it was caused by sloppiness from my side," Bjoerndalen explained. (Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Tony Goodson)