Apolo Anot Ohno has come a long way from his beginnings

Posted: Friday, February 15, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY As he entered the final turn of the first step down whatever path he will follow in Salt Lake City, Apolo Anton Ohno looked up from his rhythmic stride to steal a look over his shoulder.

And, for once, there was nothing behind him that mattered.

Germany's Arian Nachbar was too far back to be a threat in the final 50 yards of the men's 1,000-meter speed skating qualification race. And all the adolescent trials that have made Ohno such a logical face of these Younger Man's Games were no longer chasing him, either.

That, then, was the moment when an unwieldy past yielded to a wide-open future.

Ohno had long ago repaired a fractious relationship at home by taking responsibility for the difficulties between him and his father, who he now calls his greatest inspiration.

He was far removed from the borderline gang background that he escaped for Olympic speed skating, the one that somehow had been spun as glamorous leading up to the 2002 Olympics.

And even his latest drama was falling farther away, the race-fixing scandal -- which almost divided the 5,000-meter relay team he would win a later race with Wednesday night -- already dismissed according to his fellow skaters.

If Ohno hadn't already alienated every other U.S. speed skater with all the attention he was receiving leading up to the Games, he had another chance to at the Olympic Trials. That's where he was accused of dumping a race to allow his friend, Shani Davis, to make the Olympic team ahead of another skater.

The charges went nowhere, and his well-managed image survived, mostly because protests rarely produce results in Olympic sports and details never deter a story so many are determined to tell.

And more than anything right now, that's what Ohno is: good copy.

The way it's been told, he was hanging with a bad crowd before he was even a teenager and might have joined several of his childhood friends in jail if his father hadn't sent him away to a USOC skating camp when his short-track skill became apparent.

That was done more to keep him out of trouble than to put him into the Olympics, but it worked out both ways to Salt Lake.

Now he is the X-factor of the X-lympics, a post-modern hero in a newfangled Olympic sport. And he is as much the emblem of his generation as his soul patch and dismissive shrugs.

Wednesday was supposed to be his coming out. He has the best chance to win America's first medal in short track, and it was his first night on the ice.

Another figure-skating scandal overshadowed that when it overtook another Olympics. But, when that screaming inevitably stops, Ohno will again be a big part of these Games.

At this point, he is to Salt Lake what Marion Jones was to Sydney. People are saying he can win four gold medals the way they were saying she would win five.

The problem is, they were wrong about her. And they're making an even wilder reach with Ohno.

Not only because it's impossible to assume one Olympic victory, let alone four. But also because there are more variables for him, starting with traffic.

In track, all you have to worry about is beating the clock. But in short track, there are all those other guys trying to get to the same spot you are, only faster. There are no assigned lanes and even less courtesy when positioning is at stake.

So there will be more bumping and maneuvering this weekend in Salt Lake than in Daytona. And just one touch on the hip or tapped skate blade will be enough to send Ohno off the course that has been set for him.

Oh, there's also the little matter of possibly exaggerated potential. That happens sometimes with U.S. Olympic hopefuls, you know.

Even if Ohno is the best short track skater America has ever produced, there's still the rest of the world to think about.

Wednesday, he finished second in his 1,000-meter qualifier, meaning he wasn't even the hottest thing in his own heat. And, although the Americans won their prelim in the relay, they did the 5,000 in 24 seconds slower than the Canadians, who only set a world record in the practice run.

But practicality won't keep crowds from chanting and waving flags every time Ohno steps on the ice the way they did here Wednesday. It also won't keep NBC from continuing its countdown to Apolo.

And, no matter how it works out for him here, whether he goes home with four golds or just four new commercials, it won't keep what is ahead of him from looking a lot better than what's already behind him.

Savannah Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera is part of a Morris News Service team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics. He can be reached at guidera@hotmail.com.



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