The kid from Seattle was named after the wrong Greek god. They gave him Apolo, but it should have been Hermes. You know: god of skill, dexterity and ... thievery.
No, I don't mean that Apolo Anton Ohno stole his gold medal in Wednesday night's amazing 1,500-meter short track race. Let's just call it a divine make-up call by the god with wings on his feet, looking after one of his own.
You could show the crucial sequence a thousand times, and I doubt that it would ever be absolutely clear whether Kim Dong-Sung, the Korean skater who crossed the finish line first, deserved to be disqualified and have his gold medal given to Ohno. It'll be debated by skating fans forever, just as football fans still debate the Immaculate Reception and basketball fans can argue for years over whether a certain blocking call in the final five seconds of a playoff game should have been a charging foul instead. And it's a reminder that weird and amorphous judgment calls don't just apply to figure skating.
Ohno looked really nervous before the race. The moments before all races are nerve-wracking, but in track and field, at least, if you're a favorite and you run your best race, you usually win. That isn't true in short track skating, because it has a handful of chaos theory thrown into the mix -- as Ohno found out on Saturday when, just yards away from victory in the 1,000 meters, he was taken down in a wild pileup that resulted in the last-place Australian walking off with the gold.
Short track skating is becoming a huge hit at these Games, for good reason -- it has something for everyone. It's a human NASCAR race, with the hardball tactics and scary pileups but without the fatalities and noise. It's quicker than a cat batting a mouse, faster than Allen Iverson's first step, slipperier than a hyperactive guppie. Watching it leaves you as drained as if you'd just passed 10 cars on the freeway and each time missed an oncoming semi by six inches. And all this excitement is found in a sport whose racers' peculiar motion and arms-behind-back stance make them appear to be Oxford dons strolling -- admittedly rather rapidly -- around the quad while discussing late Wittgenstein.
The field in the 1,500 was deep, with formidable skaters from as wide a spectrum of nations as you'll find in any sport except badminton -- Korea, China, Canada, France, Italy, the U.S. The racers started cautiously: In this race nobody makes any moves until they've skated five or six of the 13 and a half laps.
Ohno started out in last, his boyish face with its big feminine deer eyes wearing that now-familiar and mesmerizing expression of serene effortlessness as he stroked down the track. The Olympics is a story that tells itself as it unfolds, but it also can tell the stories of others -- and Americans now saw something to be prouder of in that face than the hyped, soul-patched hipster they had been introduced to two weeks ago. On Saturday Ohno had lifted hearts when he jumped for joy after receiving his silver medal -- shrugging off the loss of the gold with an innocence and grace that reminded us that youth, the flame of youth, is itself Olympian. We had been rooting for the kid before. Now we liked him. Which meant we had just a little more to lose if he went down.
Kim, the defending World Cup champion, grabbed the lead and held it. He was tough and fast, adept at staying low through the turns, preventing his pursuers from passing him on the inside. Ohno, still at the back, waited and waited to make his move. Others jockeyed for the lead. Still he waited. It didn't seem like there'd be enough time, with the first skaters carving nasty low fast lines through the turns -- how was he even going to work his way through the pack to get in position to challenge?
Then, with only a short distance to go, Ohno pulled this weird winged-heel-and-caduceus stunt and without seeming to actually move, simply appeared in front of three skaters he'd been chasing an instant before. I would describe his move to you, but a neuron in my brain misfired and while the electrical impulse was moving from axon to dendrite I missed it. It was something he must have learned from P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves, who on hangover mornings is given to "oozing" into Bertie Wooster's bedroom.
Ohno was right behind Kim, shadowing the Korean like an Enron auditor's conscience. And then, coming out of the last turn, Ohno made his move. It was reminiscent of a break he almost made, but thought better of, in the qualifying heats of the 1,000, when he considered exploding through a gap that was going to close in about a tenth of a second. It wasn't worth risking it in a qualifier. This time, with gold on the line, it was. He took an inside line and put the pedal down. The thousands of spectators in the arena roared -- they had seen the kid with the soul patch's acceleration. It was a Cobra against a Ford Torino station wagon.
Kim was dropping down to the inside out of the turn as Ohno was closing fast to his left. He seemed to sense the move -- short track skaters are as sensitive to movement behind them as WWII fighter pilots -- and kept moving slightly more inside, his left arm coming up and going out to the left a bit. Ohno and Kim appeared to almost collide. Ohno pulled his body upright, throwing his hands up as if to indicate he'd been impeded. It was immediately obvious that Ohno could not win the gold.
The Korean crossed the finish line, with Ohno second. The crowd, reacting to Ohno's failed pass and his arms-up, he-fouled-me gesture, began booing. NBC's expert commentator said he didn't understand why they were booing -- his initial reaction was that Kim had done nothing wrong.
But a minute or so later the referee handed down a stunning decision. Kim was disqualified for "cross-tracking" -- improperly altering his line to impede Ohno. Kim, who had picked up the Korean flag to celebrate, threw it angrily down on the ice. Ohno, who had never left the ice and had thrown his arms up as if in victory as he crossed the line, exulted, a smile of pure joy lighting up his face. He didn't act as if he had been bailed out by the ref -- he acted as if he thought he had won all along. Li Jiajun of China won the silver and Canadian Marc Gagnon the bronze.
NBC's expert immediately began backpedaling, explaining that the Korean might in fact have cut Ohno off, going into the intricacies of cross-tracking. And when the replay was shown, you could certainly make an argument Ohno was fouled -- but not one you'd swear by. Kim definitely was in Ohno's way, but how much he changed his line as he dropped down from the outside to the inside, or raised his arm out of its normal course, is hard to say. Certainly as much or more blocking as that seems to go on from time to time without being penalized -- although they may call it more strictly at crucial moments.
It all depends on whether the intent of the rules is to allow all passing attempts, no matter how small the window of opportunity, or whether a subtle amount of positional blocking is allowed. The rule itself doesn't make that clear. It is one of those grave points of theological disputation that may never be resolved, like how many Canadians can do triple salchows on the head of an emotionally vulnerable French judge.
Predictably, the Korean coach was outraged, saying that Ohno "was acting" and impugning the competence of referee James Hewish. But Italys Fabio Carta, who finished fourth, had no vested interest and also blasted the decision, saying, "Its absurd that the Korean was disqualified."
Ohno, for his part, seemed genuinely convinced he was fouled. "I set up the Korean real nice," he told NBC after the race. "He came over on me way too hard." Ohnos teammate Rusty Smith claimed that Kim had been even dirtier in the semifinals, adding, "He got what he deserved."
Bob Costas admitted he didn't have a clue and compared Ohno's flop to a hoops player "selling" a charge.
As for me, I'm going to enjoy this rare moment of karmic payback and weird ethnic-subgroup bonding -- half-Japanese power! -- without guilt. Unless a replay and further expert explanation convinces me that the disqualification was utterly unwarranted -- and thus probably influenced by the rabidly pro-American crowd, which would be totally unacceptable -- I'm going to file it under the heading of "referees are part of sports." No matter what happens from here on out -- whether Ohno goes on to win one or two more medals, or blows up, or is tweaked in some yet to be revealed way by the peculiar demiurges that seem to be hovering over him -- it's going to be an interesting ride. As for Ohno, he's just riding the magic bus. "I come here, perform my best and get a gold medal," he said. "I'm good now. They can just go throw me in the desert and bury me."
Speaking of ethnicity, this lily-white Winter Olympics is starting to get positively colorful. "Multiculturalism" and "diversity" have become such dreary, dutiful, corporate words in daily life that whatever celebratory impulse they might ever have contained has been lost in a righteous murk. But the Olympics present America's racial mosaic as the great gift it is -- one that someday, perhaps, will always mean no more and no less than it did in Nagano, and Sydney, and now in Salt Lake City. When Derek Parra, the first Mexican-American to win gold at the Winter Games, and Vonetta Flowers, the first black person to do so, stood on the podium, with tears running down their faces, as the American flag was raised above them, it was hard not to feel that a tiny piece of the American promise had been fulfilled -- and to wonder how that flag might be made to seem always as friendly and innocent as it was at that moment.
It wouldn't be right to close without saying something about Jim Shea, the third-generation Olympian who, with his father, helped carry the Olympic torch and raced with a picture of his grandfather Jack in his helmet. Shea, who has a touch of Jimmy Stewart -- strong-willed, sincere, a little bit zany -- about him, won gold in the skeleton, blasting down the course after working himself up into an adrenaline-fueled frenzy. By winning, he joined his beloved grandfather as a gold medalist, 70 years after Jack medaled at Lake Placid. It was an extraordinary achievement. But just as memorable, and touching, was his attitude towards the Games. In the impassioned tones of a preacher, Shea said repeatedly that medals didn't mean very much, that competing and taking part in the Olympics was the most important thing. It was a lesson Shea must have learned both from his grandfather -- who was killed in a car wreck just weeks before these Games opened, and into whose coffin he made an offering of Irish whisky -- and his father.
Bob Costas was polite, but he didn't seem to know quite what to do with Shea's Olympic-spirit fervor. And why wouldn't he be taken aback? Why wouldn't all of NBC be confused by someone who says medals don't matter, when it barely shows anything except American medalists?
But perhaps there are other people who understand what Shea means. They are the silver and bronze medalists who stand on the podiums, congratulating the winners and joyously celebrating an outcome that in our society is usually considered unacceptable. They are the other athletes, those who failed to win any prizes but who will take away from the Games indelible memories of sportsmanship and friendship. And they are the spectators, who over the course of the Games learn, perhaps, that there are many kinds of victory -- and that some of them are wrapped in defeat. These are not lessons as easy to grasp as "win the gold" or "get rich." But they are the lessons that those old Olympians passed on to Jim Shea, and that Shea -- carrying on him a worthless old medal his grandfather won in a race he skated just for love -- tried to pass on to us.