“I may not have been the fastest skater out there, but I’m the Olympic champion. So I’m stoked!”– Steven Bradbury, Australian short-track speedskater
SALT LAKE CITY — It is not for me, as a man who can barely stay upright in dress shoes, to advise Olympic speedskaters about their tactics.
But I’ll do it anyway. For when it comes to winning a gold medal, there are many approaches, but one of them should not be this:
Go as slowly as you can and wait for everyone else to fall down.
I mean, that may work in a beer-drinking contest. But in an Olympic race? Who came up with that tactic? John Belushi?
Yet, believe it or not, Australia’s first gold medalist ever in the Winter Olympics employed exactly that plan over the weekend. Skate from the rear. Wait for others to screw up. Lo and behold, everyone in front of him went down like a house of cards.
And now he is a national hero.
“Did you hear they’re making a postage stamp in Australia with your face on it?” someone asked 28-year-old Steven Bradbury, the last man standing in the Olympic 1,000-meter short-track speedskating race.
“Pretty scary, isn’t it?” he said, laughing.
“Have you seen the artwork?”
“No. But if the picture is the size of a stamp, it can’t be too bad.”
Right. Because they can’t fit in the other four skaters. All four — including American favorite Apolo Anton Ohno — went down in a chain reaction on the final turn of Saturday night’s race. They slammed into the boards. Ohno took a skate in his thigh and would need stitches. The fallen leaders frantically pushed and crawled to reach the finish line.
Meanwhile, Bradbury, who was so far behind that the chain of the chain reaction didn’t reach him, coasted across the finish line with the biggest Cheshire Cat smile in Olympic history.
“I was like, hang on, this can’t be right, I think I just won,” Bradbury said.
In the Olympic pantheon of victorious exultation, “Hang on, this can’t be right, I think I just won” is probably down near the bottom.
‘Luck on my side’
Now, don’t get me wrong. This is not a pro-American thing. I like the Aussies. I like their accent. I like kangaroos. I even like Olivia Newton-John. And when it comes to putting on an Olympics, they are second to none. We all had such a good time in Sydney two years ago, we asked if we could stay and work in the kitchen.
And Bradbury seems, like most Aussie athletes, a decent sort. Funny. Laid back. His mom and dad met at an ice rink. They still work at an ice rink. Steven lives hand to mouth, making boots for other skaters to pay his way.
It’s true, he has blond spiked hair, a goatee and an eyebrow ring.
But these days, who doesn’t?
Still, Australia, come on. A postage stamp? National exultation? It was a fluke. It was cherry picking. It was someone picking up a winning lottery ticket that flew out of the buyer’s hand.
Not only that, but the same weird thing happened in Bradbury’s semifinal race
— the skaters in front went down and he coasted across in second place — otherwise he never would have made the final.
I mean, how do you make a commercial for Bradbury? “He came to the games with a special friend — gravity!” Even the skater himself seemed a tad embarrassed.
“I had a lot of luck on my side,” he said. “And today I’m the one who gets the spoils. I won’t take the gold medal for the minute and a half I skated, but I’ll take it for the last decade of hard slug work that I’ve put in.”
Here is the best case you can make for Bradbury: He has indeed put in his time. This is his fourth Olympics, and until last weekend, he never won anything.
Eight years ago, he was injured in a last-lap pileup much like the one he avoided Saturday. He flipped in the air and got impaled on a skate. He needed 111 stitches and four liters of blood. Ouch.
Six years later, he crashed headfirst into a barrier and broke his neck. He had to wear one of those halo braces for a month, and doctors told him to never go back to the rink.
No wonder he skates from the back.
So that’s the case you make for him. He’s a good guy, hard worker, been at it a long time, and them’s the breaks of short-track speedskating.
Here’s the case against him:
THEY ALL FELL DOWN!
A new gold medalist
Now, I happen to have relatives Down Under, so I called one. My cousin Paul, who deals in real estate, and, like most Aussie men, can talk about sports until the next Mel Gibson movie.
“So,” I said, when I reached Paul in Sydney, “is that really the way you want to win your first winter gold medal?”
“Well,” he admitted, “most Australians are like, we’ll take it, because it’s hard for us to win anything in the Winter Olympics.
“But to be honest, I thought Steven looked more shocked than anybody when he actually won.”
“Anyhow, he was a big story for a day or two,” Paul said, “but not anymore.”
What do you mean?
“Didn’t you see? We just won another gold medal this morning. A girl in the aerial skiing. And she did it the right way. Great flip. Beautiful jump.
“So I think this Bradbury fellow is going to be a short-lived story down here.”
OK, then. All’s well that ends well. But one more thing. Wednesday, Ohno and Bradbury skate again in the 1,500-meter race.
Here, then, is my last piece of speedskating advice, this time to Ohno:
If you’re going to fall, fall backward.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays.