VANCOUVER, Canada — Perhaps it’s a stretch to call it a blood feud. Then again, maybe not. The emotions engendered by the competition between American short track speedskating star Apolo Anton Ohno and the powerful Korean team transcend anything connoted by rivalry or even unfriendly rivalry.
Ohno has now gone head-to-head with three generation’s of Korea’s best at three different Olympics, with the next encounter — at 1,000 meters — scheduled for Saturday night. And if history is any guide, the race will be nothing less than a no-holds-barred scrum with high potential for major mayhem.
When the 19-year-old Ohno arrived at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, it didn’t take long to recognize that this hipster was a different kind of Olympic athlete. And with his soul patch, his diamond earring and his long, wavy hair wrapped in a colorful bandana, he was exactly the kind that appealed to young fans who were beginning to find the Olympics a bit stale.
Raised by his Japanese father, a hair stylist, in the Seattle area (his mother had left when he was just 1 year old), Ohno channeled his huge energies and remarkable physical gifts into sports. He made a successful crossover from inline skating to short track and was an immediate sensation, invited as a 13-year-old to train at the U.S. Olympic Center in Lake Placid.
But he wasn’t yet enamored of the kind of discipline that elite sports demanded. When his father dropped him at the airport for his trek east, he went on the lam for a week until his father tracked him down and personally put him on a plane. He had a few more lapses during his training regimen, though his nights of sneaking out to Pizza Hut ended after teammates nicknamed him “Chunky.” And he climbed quickly up the ranks of the sport. In the season before the Salt Lake Games, he won the World Cup overall title as well as the title at all three distances (500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters).
He was a confident young man — some would say cocky — when he made his first Olympic team. But he was also affable, spoke easily and with refreshing candor, and was popular with his teammates and, reportedly, even some opponents. How the Koreans may have felt about him before the Olympic 1,500-meter race is lost to posterity. How they felt about him afterward has been a burning issue ever since.
In the finals, Ohno was tucked right behind Korea’s Kim Dong-sung when, on the final turn, he tried to pass him on the inside. Kim fended off his pass and crossed the finish line the apparent winner. He was skating his victory lap and waving his country’s flag when — to the astonishment of the Koreans (and many others) — Kim was disqualified for obstruction and Ohno was awarded his first gold medal.
Korean fans raged against American injustice and no doubt their bruised feelings were exacerbated by Ohno’s Japanese ancestry. Ohno would add a silver medal at 1,000 meters, literally crawling across the finish line after he and a Korean skater wiped out in a collision caused by a Chinese skater.
But in the eyes of Korean fans, it was one more ugly mess involving the nettlesome American. The anger was so intense and heartfelt in that it even showed up on the soccer field four months later when Korea hosted the World Cup. After a Korean player scored the tying goal against the U.S. team, he mocked the Americans by mimicking a speedskater. (The American players didn’t have a clue what it was all about, but folks in the pressbox immediately recognized the insult aimed at Ohno.)
The rancor hadn’t subsided by the 2006 Torino Games, where Ohno won three more medals, a gold and two bronzes. After the 5,000-meter relay, won by the Koreans, the two teams exchanged handshakes and posed for pictures together. Although the Koreans had won 10 medals to just three for the Americans, it still appeared a rather awkward exercise in forced reconciliation.
For all Ohno’s Olympic accomplishments — Apolo had tied Eric Heiden for most medals by a male American Winter Olympian and was just one behind record-holder Bonnie Blair — it took an off-ice appearance to ratchet up his fame to a whole different level. His partnership with Julianne Hough on “Dancing with the Stars” — he not only won, but notched the first-ever perfect score (and then received three more of them) — transformed him into something of a cult sensation. As a result, in an online Smithsonian poll to determine the most popular of 13 legendary U.S. Winter Olympic athletes, Ohno has garnered more than one-third of all votes, 15 percent ahead of second-place Brian Boitano. “[Dancing With the Stars] opened up my personality,” said the 27-year-old, in Vancouver for his third Olympics. “It showed people who I was beneath my helmet and my bandana.”
The Koreans did not appear to be watching. Or if they were, they hadn’t grown any more enamored with Ohno. And the opening race of the Olympic short track competition, the 1,500, added a new and bizarre chapter to the incendiary saga. Ohno had no illusions about the problems he would encounter with three Koreans — all younger than Ohno and higher in the world rankings — in the seven-man final.
Through much of the race, Ohno found himself tangling with one Korean racer while another would sweep past him. With less than two laps to go, a Korean skater grabbed him and slowed his momentum. Ohno said afterward, “I’ve never had anyone hold onto my leg or my arm that long.” If his complaint was justified, what ensued was a kind of rough justice. As they flew into the final turn, Ohno appeared destined for fourth behind a Korean sweep.
But having fended off Ohno, it was now every Korean for himself. And on the final turn, two collided and went crashing into the boards. Lee Jung-su avoided the disaster and held on for the gold medal while Ohno, gifted an opening, cruised home for silver and his record sixth medal. The other beneficiary was 19-year-old American J.R. Celski, an Ohno protege, who captured the bronze. “It was a crazy race,” said Ohno in a bit of an understatement. On the medal podium, he offered his hand to the Korean champion, who looked stunned, presumably appalled that it was his teammates who had surrendered his flanks to the two Americans.
It would be hard to imagine a more thrilling or surprising race in the upcoming 1,000. But until last Saturday night, nobody could have imagined that incredible battle and finish either. About the only surefire bet is that Ohno and the Koreans will prove once again to be an incendiary mix.