Wild woolly Olympics

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FordeFiles at Salt Lake City 2002

By Tina Fisher Forde/Special to The Malibu Times

The rough-and-tumble sport of Short Track skating gets my vote for the class act of the Olympics. When a spectacular crash took out four of the five racers in the men’s 1000-meter final Feb. 16, leaving the last one standing as the gold medallist, not one complaint from the fallen competitors sullied the Olympic atmosphere.

Injured U.S. athlete Apolo Anton Ohno of Seattle, denied his hoped-for gold medal, arrived at the medal podium in a wheel chair and crutches to collect his silver medal, later pronouncing the race as one of the best of his life.

“That’s Short Track,” he said. “When I got off the ice I was happy.”

Skating around the confusion just after the race, winner Steven Bradbury of Australia flipped off a heckler in the audience who loudly protested that he did not deserve to win. But the spectator was the one who was out of line. Disqualification and collisions are the unique perils of Short Track. I did not see any DQ’d Short Track racers make a fuss, even though it meant an end to their 2002 Olympic aspirations.

Four-time Olympian Bradbury, 28, who almost died in 1994 from a 111-stitch Short Track accident that left him scarred and almost dead from the loss of four liters of blood, and who broke his neck in another accident in Sept. 2000, is a canny veteran competitor who played the game right.

But even he was surprised. As he cruised over the finish line past sprawled bodies in the relatively close quarters of the track, he said to himself, “Hang on. This can’t be right. I think I won.”

Short Track was a happy high-energy change from the dull Ice Dancing of the night before, and from the emotional Figure Skating Pairs gold medal controversy that consumed an inordinate amount of attention.

I ran into harried skating writer Christine Brennan in the ladies’ room at the Main Media Center on Feb. 14.

“I’ve never been busier in my life,” she said, dashing away. “This beats Nancy and Tanya by a mile. That’s how I judge my scandals.”

Out at gorgeous Soldier Hollow Cross Country track on Sunday, Feb. 17, the U.S. 4x10km meter Cross Country relay team placed fifth and was ecstatic; a few hours later, the U.S. Nordic Combined team placed fourth in the 4x5km relay and was miserable.

Shortly thereafter, Todd Lodwick and his three Nordic Combined teammates, the pressure on, came into the Cross Country portion of the event ranked third behind Finland and Austria. A small, hungry pack of competitors who train together at Steamboat Springs, Colo., the U.S. Nordic Combine team had long ago decided it was medal in 2002 or die.

But despite heroic efforts, the U.S. could not hold off Austria and Germany, finishing all four legs in fourth place.

That it was the top performance ever for a U.S. Nordic Combined team was little consolation to the men from Steamboat Springs. Fierce competitors who fell short of their goal, they were devastated. Lodwick choked up in the media mixed zone and, as jaded reporters respectfully backed away, went over to a fence, crumpled down and held his head in his hands.

“This was our day to shine, and the clouds came in and poured on us,” Lodwick said later, reflecting on a decade of near misses. “I’m very, very disappointed. What we needed was a medal and it didn’t happen.”

Maybe Todd, Bill, Johnny and Matt hadn’t noticed yet that they defeated powerhouse Norway and five other nations, that they gave Austria and Germany a ferocious battle and that all of them behaved like Olympians.

Answer to last week’s question: How do they put the national flags under the ice at long track speedskating?

In reality, there are no flags under the ice, although at various venues there are under-ice graphics (the Olympic logo, etc.). The flags are done with computer graphics.