Greatest U.S. Winter Olympian? Sorry, Apolo, not in short track

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 27, 2010 

Apolo Anton Ohno waves to the crowd after skating in the men's 5,000-meter relay short track finals. The U.S. finished in 3rd place to win a bronze medal. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The fickle arena of short track, full of trapdoors in the ice and inscrutable referees, smiled on Apolo Anton Ohno one last time Friday when he won his eighth Olympic medal to confirm he is the supreme survivor in his sport.

The rule in short track speedskating: Expect the unexpected. Ohno was disqualified in the 500-meter crash-and-dash, a race in which he was a favorite. But he came back to lead the U.S. 5,000-meter relay team from dead last to third.

Short track athletes spend as much time on their rear ends as they do on their skates, so Ohno was elated to likely end his career on the medal podium.

"The nice thing about an Olympic medal is that it is for life — it never goes away," Ohno said.

It looked like he would go 0-for-2 on his farewell night as the U.S. fell off the pace in the closing laps of the 3.1-mile four-team relay. But a surging Ohno closed the gap, then benefited as China's skater tripped and slid out on the final turn. Canada held on for first place, South Korea took second and an off-balance Ohno stuck his toe across the line for third.

He had the same good fortune in his 500-meter heats. In his 500 quarterfinal, Ohno hopped over a skidding skater and advanced. In his semi, he avoided a skater who fell right in front of him, made a slick move to the inside and advanced.

But the traffic was too thick in the final. Ohno was ready to pounce with 25 meters to go when he pushed the Canadian in front of him, who then tumbled. The South Korean just in front of him fell, too. Canada's Charles Hamelin slipped, nearly kicked Ohno in the groin, but twisted his body across the line in first place. Ohno crossed second. After deliberation by officials, Ohno was disqualified for making contact with Canada's Francois-Louis Tremblay, who was awarded the bronze. South Korea's Si-Bak Sung got silver.

The ruling puzzled and jolted him.

"It definitely fired me up," he said.

Ohno was as savvy as ever in his third Olympics. He won a silver and two bronze medals at the Vancouver Games. Fans can debate whether he is America's greatest Winter Olympian of all time. He's content to skate.

He's certainly been the most prolific American, winning eight career medals, including two golds, from 2002 and 2006.

But does he win the argument for best? Even with his medal Friday it would be hard to place him above Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair.

Heiden won five golds in long track speedskating in 1980, sweeping all events on the outdoor track in Lake Placid, setting four Olympic records and one world record. That display of versatility and stamina may never be repeated. What Heiden did would be the equivalent of a track and field runner winning the 400-, 800-, 1500-, 5,000- and 10,000-meter races. Think Michael Johnson combined with Haile Gebrselassie. Heiden, now an orthopedic surgeon, is on most Top Athletes of the 20th Century lists.

Blair won six medals, five gold, in long track.

Short track is, well, it's short track. In fact, that's what athletes often say with a shrug of the shoulders after another chaotic race.

"That's short track." In other words, stuff happens. Inexplicable stuff in a world unto its own. Sort of like the last line in "Chinatown": "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

Competitors slip, slide, slam into the boards. There's as many DQs and DNFs as victories. The officials are as integral to the competition as the clock.

Who can forget Australia's Steven Bradbury skating across the finish line with a smile on his face in 2002 as the last man standing. Gold by carnage. He squeaked into the finals thanks to the falls of his opponents. Half a lap behind going into the final turn of the final, his opponents went flying. He won.

Short track is fun, exciting, wild, unpredictable.

Long track is a purer test.

Ohno, son of a Seattle hair dresser, has certainly raised the profile of his sport with his trademark bandana and soul patch and his victory in "Dancing With the Stars."

But greatest U.S. Winter Olympian ever? Nope. Why not? That's short track.

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