SALT LAKE CITY—Thousands of Olympic spectators filled the Salt Lake Ice Center on Saturday night expecting to see 19-year old Apolo Anton Ohno win his third and fourth medals, one to be shared with Harvard’s Dan Weinstein ’03-’04 in the 5,000-meter relay.
Instead, the fans received a harsh lesson in the unpredictable nature of short-track speed skating.
Ohno didn’t even make the finals of the men’s 500 meters, contested prior to the relay. And while American Rusty Smith became the hero of the early evening after winning a bronze in the 500, he was the goat of the late evening, tripping over a lane marker in the relay to knock the U.S. out of championship contention.
All the Americans needed to win a relay medal was to avoid a last-place finish in the four-team final heat. But last is exactly where the Americans—the reigning world champions in the event—finished.
Smith’s fall knocked the U.S. from second to third place behind the Italians. Shortly thereafter the Chinese, who had fallen earlier in the race, moved up into third. The U.S. finished more than a lap behind first-place Canada and almost a half a lap back of third-place China.
Weinstein—whose throng of supporters held a sign reading “GO DAN! YOU DA’ MAN” from the upper deck—acknowledged that mishaps like Smith’s were simply natural to his sport.
“It’s what happens sometimes,” Weinstein said. “It doesn’t change the fact that I still think we’re still the best relay team in the world. You lose distance, and it’s harder to get your speed back after a fall, but you give it everything you have. We were fried at the end. All of us understand. These things can happen.”
Ron Biondo, the other U.S. relay team member going home medal-less, was less composed than Weinstein. Biondo threw his helmet over the wall in frustration at the end of the race.
Ohno believed he could have anchored the U.S. team to victory had the fall never occurred.
“We were in perfect position,” Ohno said. “There’s no doubt in my mind if we wouldn’t have gone down and I was there in the end, I could have done some magic.”
Smith was quick to apologize to his teammates after the fall.
“It was all completely my fault,” Smith said. “I feel horrible about it.”
Just minutes after the disappointing conclusion to the relay, Smith came back on ice to accept his 500-meter bronze medal. He emerged downcast at first, but his spirits lightened as he received cheers from the minority of fans who stayed for the medal ceremony.
Ohno had been the American media’s pick to win double gold on Saturday, but Canada’s Marc Gagnon ultimately pulled off the feat. To even make the final, Gagnon had to edge out Korean world champion Kim Dong-Sung for second place in their semifinal heat behind Smith.
In the 500 final, Smith led up until the final lap, but he was passed by Gagnon and fellow Canadian Jonathan Guilmette down the stretch.
“I had a great start, but I held the lead for a little too long, I think,” Smith said. “But I’m really happy about the way things turned out.”
The victory was sweet redemption for Gagnon, who had fallen in the 500 finals in his previous two Olympics.
“It’s the end of a journey,” he said. “I still can’t believe it.”
Gagnon is the second male short tracker to win three gold medals, having also won the relay gold at Nagano. He has five Olympic medals overall, more than anyone else in the sport.
Ohno was the main attraction for Saturday’s events. Whole rows of fans wore Ohno “soul patches” on their chins. U.S. figure skating champion Michelle Kwan was on hand to hold up a sign reading “Oh Yes Ohno!” to the delight of the crowd.
Ohno’s run at four Olympic medals ended in the semifinals of the 500. He struggled throughout the evening, having to come from behind to barely earn second place in both his preliminary and quarterfinal heats. In the semifinals, he came out slow again and trailed Guilmette and Japan’s Satoru Terao throughout the race.
Ohno tried to accelerate past the two leaders as they approached the final lap, but they left him with no room to pass. He made a desperate move to pull in behind Guilmette, but Terao beat him to the turn. The two collided, and Terao was sent crashing into the boards.
The collision slowed down Ohno to the point where he finished third in the race. But he was later disqualified altogether for impeding Terao. Ohno simply smiled and stepped off the ice, while Terao was awarded a free pass to the finals.
“I was waiting, waiting for an opportunity to pass,” Ohno said. “The Japanese guy was wide on the corner and I came up on him. I barely touched him. He’s so light. I think he was going down already.”
Despite going without a medal on his final evening, Ohno remained upbeat. Only the media’s inflated expectations would allow his two Olympic medals to be considered a failure. The three medals from the 2002 U.S. team were still more than any Americans in short-track speed-skating’s 10-year Olympic history.
“I came here, and I did an excellent job,” Ohno said. “So many people supported me. All my friends and family in the stands, and that’s just and unbelievable feeling. My first Games and I got two medals…there’s nothing better than that.”