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US speedskater Ohno locks horns with Korea

The 1,000-meter race this Saturday night promises to have all the highs and lows of an epic blood rivalry.

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.