Olympic dreams, character and sensitivity of life

On Sunday, July 25, it is exactly 10 years since I had one of my greatest experiences as a spectator at an international sporting event: the 14th World Aquatics Championships, which was held in Shanghai, China. The mood among the 18,000 spectators – almost all Chinese – in the Shanghai Oriental Sports Center was very special before the final in the 100 meter breaststroke for men. All sympathy, both among spectators and TV viewers around the world, was directed at 26-year-old Alexander Dale Oen from Norway. For one particular reason: A right-wing extremist terrorist from Oslo had 3 days before in a cold and cynical way carried out horrific acts that had resonated all over the world. One of the world’s strongest democracies – Norway – had been hit in the national soul when 8 people were killed in the bombing of government buildings in Oslo and 69 young people at a summer camp were brutally shot down on Utøya by a fanatical neo-Nazi driven by fear of strangers.

A unique swimming talent from Western Norway

Alexander Dale Oen was born and raised on the island of Rong in Øygarden Municipality, which consists of a number of smaller islands near Bergen. Together with his 5 year older big brother Robin, Alexander was 6 years old enrolled in the club Vestkantsvømmerne. And soon he displayed an unusually great talent for swimming, especially the disciple breaststroke. He set lots of national records as a junior swimmer and already as a 17-year-old he won the first national senior championship in the favorite discipline 100 meters breaststroke. The international breakthrough for Dale Oen came in 2005, when he achieved a 7th place at the World Championships on long distance in Montreal, Canada. In the following years, the unique swimmer from Western Norway achieved a large number of titles at international championships, both short track (25 meters) and long track (50 meters). Among the highlights was the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where Dale Oen won Norway’s first ever Olympic medal in swimming, defeated only in the final by reigning Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima from Japan.

The WC gold which was dedicated to the innocent victims

The silence among the spectators at the Shanghai Oriental Sports Center was instantaneous before the start shot for the final in the 100m breaststroke for men. And the noise was extreme during and after the race, where the sovereign Norwegian put all the competitors in place. The time of 58.71 seconds was a personal record for Dale Oen and more than 7/10 seconds faster than Fabio Scozzoli from Italy (59.42) and Cameron van der Burgh (59.49) from South Africa. Dale Oen had fully lived up to both his own and everyone else’s expectations. At the subsequent press conference, he dedicated the gold medal to the victims from Oslo and Utøya, their closest and the entire Norwegian people. The day after the highly emotional experience, I met Alexander by chance at the hotel in Shanghai, where the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish swimming teams were accommodated. It was a short – but very memorable – conversation with an extremely sympathetic and modest world-class athlete.

An incomprehensible heart attack

Only 9 months after the World Championship in Shanghai – on April 30, 2012 – Alexander Dale Oen and his loved ones were hit by a personal tragedy and the whole of Norway was hit again in the national soul. The news of Dale Oen’s death in a hotel room during an altitude training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona in the US was – just like the terrorist attacks in Oslo and on Utøya – unreal and inconceivable: A 26-year-old well-trained top athlete does not die of cardiac arrest without prior symptoms. Two months after the tragic death, Olympiatoppen and the Norwegian Swimming Federation issued a press release on the autopsy report, which was published in accordance with US law. The report showed that Alexander Dale Oen died of a heart attack as a result of a blood clot in one of the three coronary arteries. The report also showed that Dale Oen had significant atherosclerosis and changes in the heart muscle with minor infarctions a few months before his death. Furthermore, Olympiatoppen’s doctor Ola Rønsen concluded that there was probably a connection between a shoulder injury that Dale Oen had sustained at the beginning of 2012, and the death. Despite reports from specialists in both Norway and the United States in the months before the death, no one had suspected a link between the shoulder injury and a possible coronary artery disease. The most common causes of coronary artery disease are smoking, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and inactivity. All risk factors that are not part of a world class athlete’s everyday life.

We do not give character, we develop character

Alexander Dale Oen’s sudden and premature death was, of course, a very great loss for his family, friends and sports mates, both inside and outside Norway. For Norwegian elite sports, Dale Oen’s tragic death a few months before the 2012 Olympics in London was also a loss of Norway’s clearly greatest Olympic medal hope. Alexander’s biggest dream was an Olympic gold medal in the favorite discipline 100 breaststroke. It was instead won by one of Alexander’s good friends: Cameron van der Burgh from South Africa, who set a world record in the Olympic final with a time of 58.46 seconds.

The memories of the swimmer and human Alexander Dale Oen are stronger today than ever before.

This is mainly due to the fact that his family, led by his big brother Robin, immediately after Alexander’s death, established the Dale Oen Foundation, which offers children and young people from 8 to 18 years activities and longer stays, where they get opportunities to challenge themselves – both physically and mentally – through the use of nature. The foundation’s motto is “We do not give character, we develop character”, which is an expression that mastery and learning are in focus for the activities. The foundation’s activities are primarily aimed at children and young people, who have often experienced defeats and disappointments in the established school and education system.

To live – both in the present and through the memories

Monday, July 26, 2021, the final of the 100 meter breaststroke at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Britain’s Adam Beaty, who is both reigning world champion and holder of the world record (56.88 seconds), is the big favorite for the Olympic gold. I will of course follow the swimming finals on live TV and wish all the best for the Danish Olympic swimmers. Also Jeanette Ottesen, who sensationally became world champion in 2011 in the 100 meter freestyle and now participates in her fifth Olympics. But I would especially like to send many thoughts to Alexander Dale Oen, who won the hearts of all Norwegians and – including mine – exactly 10 years ago at the Shanghai Oriental Sports Center.