I can hear the howls from Korea even now, carrying across the Pacific and swooping low over Northern California before resounding off the Wasatch range. Spare me, and spare young master Ohno. "I feel bad for the Korean," said my neighbor in the press section. "He was already taking his victory lap."
"A bit too quickly," I replied. I was not trying to be mean, merely pointing out that young master Kim had picked up his flag in an ill-advised nonce, even as officials were quite obviously comparing notes at mid-ice. (His coach, Jun Myung-Kyu, took the postgame rap for getting the flag out there so fast: "I thought he had won.") There was about this tableau the air of a boy who had been bad, who knew he had been bad, and who was trying to put the misdemeanor behind him as fast as possible, hoping no one had noticed hoping it would vanish. Kim's flag-dropping protest was half-hearted at best, and his precipitous disappearance from the scene was as telling as it was well-advised.
Why do we love Ohno so? It is, only in small part, because of all that we read in the Olympic run-up stories. His dad his parent put him on a plane to a speed skating camp, but Ohno didn't make the trip, hanging instead with his buddies in Seattle. His dad, Yuki, put him on the plane again sitting in the next seat, this time and this time Ohno got to the camp, and to the coach, that would change his life.
We love him for his nimble skating and fluid style. We love him for his diamond stud and long hair. We love him for these things you can see and sense.
But before the Games, no matter what we read, few of us knew Ohno. Now, we feel, we know him like a brother/son/pal. It's because of that 1,000-meter race last week, when the great sprawling crash in the last lap took everyone out, Ohno included, and allowed Steven Bradbury of Australia to cruise home free. Everything Ohno did and has done after falling has revealed him as a great athlete and wonderful competitor and sportsman.
First, he lunged for the line, and grabbed the silver. Then, he had no complaints. "That's short track." Third, he congratulated Bradbury as the rightful winner. Fourth, he taped up his stitched-up leg treated in the interim by none other than Eric Heiden, living speed skate legend and this year's team doctor and proved that even this slacker generation can spit nails and get back on the track. Fifth, he smiled and kept smiling. Sixth, he was very evidently and very consistently completely genuine. This guy is Favre, he's Agassi, he's Tiger, he's Namath. This guy's the goods.
He skated his heat and semifinal, finishing second in each, barely taking his hands off his back. He skated an Ohno final, pushing, teasing, waiting, stalking, moving. And then he couldn't move; everyone saw it. It was all the Korean could do to . . . finish first. If not to win, at least to feel first.
The scene in the bowels of the arena after the race was, well, let's call it "fraught." At Ohno's press conference, Korean journalists peppered him with questions and insinuations even as, elsewhere in the building, Korean officials were filing an official protest of the results.
"I can't really explain my feelings about the race," Ohno said, for his part. "I am just so happy."
And we are happy for him. It's a curious thing, the attraction of this athlete.
"I got to skate with the best once again," he said. "And I got to perform for my country."
Ohno said that when he pumped his fist upon crossing the finish line he wasn't sure, but thought he might be in with a chance for the gold. To sports fans in the stands, who had seen the beleaguered leader trying to fend off the charging Ohno, the feeling was quite like that moment in the Oakland-New England game when Brady did or didn't fumble. One way or another, this aint over. It wasnt, then it was and the decision was the right one.
Which persuades the world not at all. An Italian racer in the final, Fabio (no relation to the Fabio) Carta, offered post-race that "We should use a rifle on Ohno. Its absurd that the Korean was disqualified."
A rifle. Charming.
The Italian might, of course, be able to find one in Utah, not to mention a license to use it. But not during the Games, when different rules are applicable, so lets send him home soonest. Meantime, watch him closely. And if you're a fan of true sportsmen, watch Ohno, too. He'll be back in the 5,000-meter relay on Saturday. For a final victory lap, we hope and presume.