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Olympic Preview -- Speed Skating

By United Press International   |   Feb. 4, 2002 at 1:17 AM   |   Comments

Once clouded by suspicion, Apolo Anton Ohno aims to illuminate his talent in the men's short-track speed skating competition at the Winter Olympics.

Ohno looks to win four gold medals in the short-track events when the races commence at the Salt Lake Ice Center.

Meanwhile, the lone American medalist in speed skating four years ago, Chris Witty, may struggle in her attempt to finish in the top three on the long track at the Utah Olympic Oval.

If successful in his medal quest, the 19-year-old Ohno could have a similar impact on these Games that another American had the last time the United States hosted the Winter Olympics.

Eric Heiden recorded one of the great performances in Olympic history in 1980 at Lake Placid. then 21, Heiden won five individual gold medals in long-track events, ranging from 500 to 10,000 meters.

On the short track, Ohno will be competing in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500-meter individual races and the 5,000-meter relay.

However, he avoided defeat off the ice in what could have become one of the worst moments in U.S. Olympic history.

An independent arbitrator recently dismissed a claim that Ohno and Rusty Smith conspired to fix a race at December's U.S. Olympic Trials.

Ohno and Smith had been accused of allowing Shani Davis to win a 1,000-meter race, securing his spot on the U.S. team. In turn, that cost Tommy O'Hare, a 1998 Olympian, a trip to Salt Lake City.

A decision against Ohno likely would have denied participation to the first American to win a World Cup title at any distance. In a stunning 2001 season, Ohno won the overall World Cup crown, claiming victories in 12 races at various distances.

O'Hare sought arbitration from U.S. Speedskating and had the support of affidavits from other skaters and the race referee, but James Holbrook upheld the results of the race.

Holbrook stated that the Dec. 22 race was "fairly run, fairly officiated and not subject to challenge."

Davis ended up claiming the race and jumped from eighth at the trials to the sixth and final qualifying spot, becoming the first black skater to make the team. Had Davis not won the race, O'Hare would have qualified.

Ohno since has said he raced cautiously to avoid an injury, having already clinched a spot on the team. Critics have argued, however, that if Ohno was worried about injury, he did not have to even skate in the race since his spot on the team had already been clinched.

While Ohno prepares for a run at gold, Witty -- the former women's 1,000-meter world-record holder -- has been diagnosed with mononucleosis and may have trouble finding success in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500-meter long-track competitions.

Finishing outside of the top three four years ago, Casey FitzRandolph and Jennifer Rodriguez hope to contribute to the U.S. team's stated goal of breaking the American mark of eight speedskating medals at a single Olympics.

The Americans' home-ice advantage will be significant since team members have trained in Utah for the past year. But the sport's traditional power could spoil the host nation's plans.

Skating is a national pastime in the Netherlands and the strength of the Dutch squad reflects that strong role in national life.

Gianni Romme looks to defend his 10,000-meter Olympic title on the long track. As well as owning the world record at that distance, he also has recorded the fastest time in 3,000 and 5,000-meter history.

However, the Dutch team's depth can be measured by Romme's failure to earn a spot in the 5,000 meters, despite being the reigning Olympic champion.

Bob de Jong won a silver medal in Nagano as the Dutch recorded a sweep in the 10,000. At the 2001 World Championships, which also were held at the Utah Olympic Oval, de Jong took gold in the 5,000 and silver in 10,000, trailing compatriot Carl Verheijen.

Verheijen recorded the second fastest 10,000-meter time in history at that event. Only Romme has skated faster.

Marianne Timmer of the Netherlands will try to defend her Olympic titles in the 1,000 and 1,500-meter events in the women's competition.

World records could fall in the short- and long-track events at the 2002 Winter Games. The altitude at the Salt Lake Ice Center is 4,281 feet and at the Oval it is 4,675 feet.

Altitude, dry air and the Oval's design has yielded four world records since the 4,600-seat facility opened a year ago.

Japan's Hiroyasu Shimizu, the long-track world and Olympic record holder in the 500, looks to defend his title. He rose to prominence in Nagano when he became the host nation's first gold medalist of the Games.

Jeremy Wotherspoon of Canada was the silver medalist behind Shimizu in 1998. But he went on to win three consecutive World Cup titles and break the 1,000-meter world record.

The 5-4 Shimizu and the 6-2 Wotherspoon historically have had close races over 500 meters, including a dead heat at Butte, Mont. in January 2000.

Catriona LeMay Doan of Canada is the clear favorite in the women's 500. Since winning the gold medal at Nagano, LeMay Doan has won the 1999 and 2001 World Championships and dominated the 2000-01 World Cup series, taking nine of 10 races.

On the short track, South Korea's Dong-Sung Kim attempts to defend his 1,000-meter Olympic title while China's Jiajun Li -- the 1,000-meter silver medalist at Nagano -- will try to dethrone his rival.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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