Norway’s Andreas Thorkildsen prepares for the men’s javelin throw event at the IAAF World Challenge Ostrava Golden Spike track and field meeting in Ostrava, May 25, 2012. (REUTERS/David W Cerny)

By Philip O’Connor

OSLO, June 14 (Reuters) – Following the sudden death of his Olympic teammate Alexander Dale Oen, Norwegian javelin thrower Andreas Thorkildsen carries an extra burden into next month’s London Olympics.

Tragedy struck the Norwegian Olympic team this year when swimmer Alexander Dale Oen died at a training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona. An autopsy revealed he had died of a heart attack brought on by a hereditary condition.

The death of the world 100 meters breaststroke champion shocked twice Olympic champion Thorkildsen, who said that his team mate’s passing had prompted him to reflect over his own life.

“Sport is what we do, not who we are,” Thorkildsen told the newspaper Verdens Gang inMay. “And to lose someone like Alex, who was so full of life, is unbelievable.”

Dale Oen’s death means Norway’s hopes of an Olympic gold medal rest almost solely with Thorkildsen, who will have to defeat his close friend and fiercest rival Tero Pitkamaki of Finland.

The paradox of their relationship, laid back yet highly-competitive, says much about the character of both men.

Thorkildsen is a committed city dweller who divides his time between Oslo and San Diego, while Pitkamaki hails from a small country town in western Finland. Pitkamaki has tried to introduce his great rival to the joys of nature, but claims he gets bored too quickly.

“Andreas is great, we have spent some time on the river fishing, but then he soon wants to leave back to the city life in Oslo,” he told reporters.

Born into a family with its roots firmly in track and field, Thorkildsen’s father was a javelin thrower and his mother a hurdler. He took up the javelin in his home town of Kristiansand at the age of 11 and as a teenager racked up a series of Norwegian records.

His first medal in the Norwegian national championships came in 2000 and he followed that in the same year by winning a silver medal at the world junior championships in South Africa.

A move to Oslo and a change of coach followed as Asmund Martinsen took over the reins and Thorkildsen soon broke the 80 meters mark to set a junior world record.

A dip in form led to disappointing results but he bounced back in 2004, throwing 84.12 meters in front of his home crowd in Oslo to qualify for the Olympics.

FIERCE RIVALRY

At the Athens Games, he qualified easily for the finals before throwing a personal best of 86.50 to secure a shock victory over American Breaux Greer.

No one was more shocked than Thorkildsen himself, who described the experience as being “completely insane.”

Thorkildsen’s rivalry with Petkamaki began in earnest in 205 as the two battled it out for the world title in Helsinki.

In blustery, damp conditions the pair were among the only throwers to reach the automatic qualification mark of 81 metres. Petkamaki’s challenge faded in the final but Thorkildsen held on to win a silver medal in the foul weather.

Firm friends away from the arena, the two have often given joint news conferences at Diamond League meetings around the world, and are almost as inseparable as some of their results.

In 2006 Thorkildsen reached a personal milestone when he threw over 90 meters for the first time in Doha.

He bettered that in front of his home crowd at the Bislett stadium, recording a throw of 91.59 to make himself firm favorite for the European title which he duly claimed.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics was possibly the pinnacle of his career as he recorded five throws that all would have won him a medal culminating in the gold.

He finally won the world title the following year, making him the first javelin thrower to hold world, Olympic and European titles at the same time.

Thorkildsen’s form suffered a little last year, something he put down to problems with his timing.

“If there’s no timing, the results drop. Luckily it didn’t affect the whole season. It took some time to fix,” he said.

Despite a disappointing third place in front of his home fans in Oslo in June, Thorkildsen is still one of Norway’s most popular athletes and, with the passing of Dale Oen, he will be getting a lot of attention at London 2012.

But the athlete with the strong American accent and a penchant for wearing baseball caps backwards says that a third gold is not a goal in itself, and that any Olympic title is worth winning.

“An Olympic gold is great regardless,” he said. “It would be fun to get. With regard to experience I’m stronger than many others because I have two previous Olympic golds, and a lot of championship experience. In terms of form, we’ll look at that a little closer (to the Olympics).”