by | Feb 21, 2002 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SALT LAKE CITY — Blame your parents. If they had named you Apolo when you popped from the womb, then you, too, might have been out there Wednesday night, with a yellow crash helmet, a tuft of hair on your chin, a glint of teenaged cockiness in your eye, flying over an ice track with five other skaters breathing on your speed suit and knowing something almost nobody else watching knew.

That you’d won even when you’d lost.

You, too, if named Apolo, might be forgiven an adolescence of minor trouble and low-life friends, underachieving at school and getting chunky on junk food, generally aspiring to do little more than play Sean Penn’s character in
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

You, too, might have found some heaven-sent purpose in speedskating just when your life was going nowhere. You, too, might have survived being a national champion at age 14 and an Olympic trials washout at age 15.

You, too, might be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in a ripped speed suit and a menacing look. You, too, might be at that enviable age when a nod or a smirk brings the same adoring sigh from the girls.

You, too, might consider “whatever” a full sentence.

And yes, you, too, might have had that ultimate coolness at the conclusion of the men’s short-track speedskating 1,500-meter finals of the Salt Lake Olympics, smack in the middle of a raucous arena full of booing fans who thought you’d finished second behind a Korean skater who was waving his arms and celebrating and acting for all intents and purposes like the gold medalist.

But he wasn’t.

And you knew it.

You knew what was coming. It was coming as surely as a boulder rolls down a mountain.


Well, what did you expect? If ever a name seemed destined for an Olympic podium.


He grows up

“They can just go throw me in the desert and bury me,” Apolo Anton Ohno said after his first Olympic gold medal. “I’ve got a gold. I’m good now.”

“Did you know the disqualification was coming?” he was asked.

“Oh, yeah,” he said.

Oh, yeah. Where else but in short-track speedskating could something like this happen? Last weekend, Ohno had been the victim of the sport’s funny twists, having led in the 1,000 meters just a turn from the finish, when a chain-reaction crash sent him and others into the wall, and let the last-place skater, Steven Bradbury from Australia, claim the gold.

In that race, Ohno slid across the line on his stomach to take the silver. He accepted it gracefully, saying “that’s the sport.”

Now, Wednesday night, he seemed — for about two minutes — to be silver again. But the Korean skater had crossed into Ohno’s imaginary “lane” — just as Ohno was charging beautifully from fifth place toward the lead. Ohno lifted and threw his hands up to indicate he’d been thwarted, then dropped into his tuck and raced the rest of the way.

“I waited for the right move, took a chance, stayed in the back and saved some energy,” he said. “When he came over on me, I knew that something would be called.”

Eventually. And when the stunning announcement came, Ohno leaped in the air, raised his arms, then fell to track, as the pro-American crowd erupted in deafening cheers, even as the Korean skater threw his flag down in disgust, stared in disbelief and kicked the ice in contempt.

Booing? Kicking? Cheering? Screaming?

Well, they said short track reminded you of roller derby.

Now it looked and sounded like it, too.

The weirdest races

“This is an unbelievable feeling,” Ohno said afterward in the press room.
“There’s really no words. No words.”

Understandable. Ohno already had the strangest silver medal in these games. Now he has the strangest gold.

Here, in a thrilling 13 1/2-lap race, in a rock ‘n’ roll atmosphere, in the heart of prime-time NBC coverage, was the new pride of grunge city, the son of a Japanese hairstylist father who raised his son by himself and once left him eight days in a deserted cabin to think about what he wanted to be.

And you know what’s funny? He seems to grow up at these Salt Lake Games. His silver last weekend gave him all the opportunity he needed to complain, to act like a petulant 19-year-old. But he didn’t. He was good-natured. He was gracious. He congratulated the winner.

And Wednesday night, standing on the podium, looking like a wintry Peter Pan, the crowd congratulated him, and he looked, dare we say it, wholesome?

Throw him in the desert and bury him. Well. Not yet. He still has two races left Saturday, and given his first two, he’ll snag NBC’s prime time for sure.

But nothing will ever match his first gold medal, the culmination of a long, strange trip, with a short, strange announcement.

And one day, when he’s all grown up with a son of his own, he’ll show him the tape of Wednesday night, when he held his medal high and the crowd exploded.

“Daddy, is that you?” the little boy will say.

“Yes, Hercules,” he’ll answer, “it is.”

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


The disqualification rules for short-track speedskating:

Intentionally pushing, obstructing or colliding with another racer calls for the offender’s disqualification. Improperly crossing the course — cross-tracking — is also prohibited.

Lead skater has the right of way and the passing skater must avoid body contact.

Skaters also are disqualified for changing lanes or altering their course at the finish. Competitors are required to skate in a straight line from the end of the corner to the finish line. Veering inside or outside to maintain the lead is grounds for disqualification.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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