Usually, when you witness a bit of sports history, euphoria sweeps through the building. But when short-track speedskater Apolo Ohno finished third in the 1,000 meter event on Saturday night, giving him seven career Olympic medals, the most-ever by an American Winter Olympian, you couldn't help feel a little bit like ... "ack." Maybe it was the third-place finish. America tends to like its triumphs golden. But the truth is, while Team USA is now trumpeting Ohno as the "most-decorated" American Winter Olympian of all time, the label is a bit contrived.
Ohno passed Bonnie Blair, the long-track speedskater who won six medals between 1988 and 1994, as the U.S. Winter Olympian with the most hardware. After he crossed the finish line, and saluted the fans waving American flags and Ohno signs some even sported Ohno's signature soul patch Ohno held up all five fingers on his left hand, and two on his right.
But let's not get overly excited about his medal count. Blair won five golds and a bronze. By any kind of accounting, her haul is more valuable than Ohno's two golds, two silvers, and three bronzes. You can't take away anything from career of Ohno, whose hip looks, fast feet, and dashing name (if he was Frank Smith, would have snared that spot on Dancing With the Stars?) have allowed him to become a rare Winter Olympian who enjoys mainstream fame. He has won medals in three consecutive Olympics, trains ten hours a day to keep his frame chiseled, and is the best chess player in a sport that requires exquisite strategy. In short-track speedskating, you either jump out front and will yourself to hold the lead, or trail the pack and outsmart your opponents at the finish. Luckily for us, Ohno prefers the latter approach: he's awfully fun to watch.
Consider his performance Saturday night. In Ohno's quarterfinal heat, he sat in third place for most of the race (the top two finishers advance to the next round). With the other skaters crowded together in front of him the athletes are so bunched up while circling around the 111-meter track, it looks like they're competing in somebody's kitchen Ohno's quest was in serious danger. But his patience and mental acuity finally paid off. Ohno spotted an opening, and quickly slipped past Germany's Tyson Heung. If you looked down to take a sip of your soda, you might have missed this maneuver. Ohno held on to advance.
In the semifinals, Ohno waited until the last lap to make his move. Running third once again, he floated to the outside, then zipped inside past another skater. How he didn't scrape the blocks and get disqualified was a miracle. And in the finals, he was ensconced in second place with two and a half laps to go. "In my head I thought the race was mine," he says. Then he slipped and fell from second to fifth but summoned the strength and speed to recover from this seemingly disastrous error, and finished third to win the bronze.
In clinching his seventh medal, Ohno turned in a clutch performance. On the whole, however, Ohno has been extraordinarily lucky in the Olympics. During the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, Kim Dong-sung from South Korea crossed the finish line first in the 1,500-meter race. Ohno trailed behind him, and finished second. After Dong-sung started waving the Korean flag during his victory lap, the judges disqualified him for blocking Ohno. South Korea was furious, and took out their frustration on the American. Ohno received death threats.
South Korea's anti-Ohno sentiment was rekindled in Vancouver. In the 1,500-meter race on Feb. 13, two South Koreans skaters crashed on the last turn, allowing Ohno to move past them into second place. Afterward, Ohno said he might have won gold if the winner, South Korea's Lee Jung-Su, hadn't obstructed him. The Koreans accused Ohno of playing dirty. "Ohno didn't deserve to stand on the same medal platform as me," said Lee. When asked Saurday night if she liked Ohno, A Reum Han, a skating fan who traveled from Soeul to be at the Games, slowly shook her head. "No, to be frank," she said.
After Saturday's race, I asked Ohno if he felt, in his mind, like he was the greatest Winter Olympian of all-time. He dodged. "That's a very hard question," he said. "How do you answer that? ... I never came into these Olympic games trying to break records. I do this sport because I love it. My goal here was to pour my heart and soul into these Olympic games. I have no regrets."
Ohno has two more races left in Vancouver, the 500 meters and the 5,000-meter relay. (The finals for both events are Feb. 26.) Another gold would more firmly cement his Olympic legacy. "There's not many athletes that come in back-to-back Olympics games and medal," Ohno says. "Very, very few. For me to be able to do it three games, I'm very happy. I'm very blessed." And he's justifiably proud of Saturday's finish. "I had that big slip, lost my speed, then I saw everybody flying by me," he says of the 1,000-meter final. "And I'm like, 'oh boy, there's not a lot of time left, I have to kind of crank it up.' I was able to fight hard, come back, regroup mentally. I was very happy I was able to win a bronze medal. Number seven." A record. It's just too bad a few more aren't gold.