Wednesday, February 16, 2011

February 16, 2002: Oh no!

SALT LAKE CITY - It looked like nothing short of controlled chaos. It starts with a few laps of athletes skating in a line, getting their bearings. Then the speed picked up, the skaters in back looking for opportunities to pass. Then the final few laps, with passing and crashing and slipping and reaching. It was stunning.

Short track speed skating was introduced as a full-time Olympic sport in the 1992 games, but they started to gain a larger audience in the 2002 games in Salt Lake City. The sport was perfect for television, featuring athletes competing against each other rather than against the clock, and featuring high-speed passing and shocking collisions. It seemed like it was a perfect spectator sport.

One of the races that best exemplified the chaos that is short track skating was the 1,000 meter final on February 16, 2002. American Apolo Anton Ohno, perhaps the man most responsible for helping the sport grow in popularity in these Olympics, had made the final and appeared to be in good position as the skaters closed in on the finish. The race had everything that makes the sport so exhiliarating: smooth skating, building tension, an exciting finish. Oh, and a spectacular crash.

Ohno was skating near the front on the final lap with South Korea's Ahn Hyun-Soo and China's Li Jiajun when Li tried to pass on the inside. Li caught an edge and went down, taking out Ahn, Ohno, and Canadian Mathieu Turcotte with him. With the top four contenders sprawled on the ice, Australia's Steven Bradbury came home clean with a shocking gold medal. Meanwhile, in one of the lasting images in the sport, Ohno got up and scrambled toward the finish line, swinging his skate across the line just ahead of Turcotte to somehow claim a silver medal.

Americans unfamiliar with the sport were shocked and angry that Ohno lost a gold medal because of another skater's actions, not quite realizing that this was just a part of the sport. It helped when Ohno got a little bit of retribution later in the 1,500 meter event, winning the gold after first-place finisher Kim Dong-Sung was disqualified for blocking him. The judges' decision against Kim outraged many South Koreans, many of whom still dislike Ohno to this day.

Whether it's because of his popularity in America or his infamy in South Korea, Ohno is one of the most well-known athletes in short-track skating. His scramble across the finish line in 2002 is one of the main reasons why.

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