Slipping and sliding into grace

Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2002

Athletes fall from grace all the time. Apolo Anton Ohno, whose name only hints how different he is from the Olympians crowded around him, is that rare athlete who fell into it.

Five nights after his slipping, sliding, slithering silver finish in the 1,000-meter short track speedskating final, America's unlikely cover boy followed it up with an even more controversial gold in the 1,500.

The Seattle teen-ager, who held the world record coming in, was declared the winner after Korean Kim Dong-Sung was disqualified for impeding Ohno as he attempted to pass on the inside, part of a bold move to take the lead in the next-to-last turn.

Cut off by Kim, Ohno pulled back and raised his arms to call attention to the foul. Kim crossed the finish line first and was already taking a victory lap when the judges' decision turned the boos in the packed arena to cheers. The Korean threw down the flag he was carrying in disgust and Ohno, who was slowly circling the track in anticipation of just such a change, raised his arms in victory.

''They can just throw me in the desert and bury me,'' he said. ''I got a gold medal. I'm good now.''

Ohno's place on the podium Wednesday night was one step higher than where he stood after Saturday night's crash-marred performance, burnishing his reputation as both a champion and a standup guy.

In the 1,000, he was the most prominent casualty in a last-turn, last-lap, chain-reaction collision and needed to be wheeled back into the arena in a wheelchair for his medal. There was a gash in his left leg that would take six stitches to close. But he climbed on the podium in front of a crowd that only moments earlier was howling for justice, and jumped up and down for joy. It was his way of signaling that justice had already been served.

This time, he came in under his own power, certainly just as proud, but much more restrained. Waiting for the medal to be hung around his neck, he clasped his hands just below his eyes as if praying, then held the medal aloft while the arena rocked in celebration.

Off to the side, Yuki Ohno, the single father who struggled to rein in a rebellious son, shed tears behind a pair of yellow-tinted sunglasses.

Ohno arrived at these Winter Games with a realistic chance to win four golds. He has yet to take his shot in the 500 and the 5,000 relay, but it's hard to imagine what he can do to top the medals he already holds.

Saturday night, he accomplished more with a few words and gestures than his A-list promoters -- Nike, IMG and NBC -- managed to do with a monthlong campaign of commercials, magazine covers and TV spots.

On this night, he showed he can be as graceful in winning as losing.

As the last strains of the anthem died out, he invited silver medalist Li Jiajun of China and bronze winner Marc Gagnon of Canada onto the top step.

Afterward, Ohno called the disqualification of Kim a ''good call.''

''I came out of the corner with great acceleration, came on him real tight, got inside of him and he just moved over on me, changed my track a little bit.''

Not everyone agreed.

''It's absurd that the Korean was disqualified,'' said Italian Fabio Carta, who finished fourth.

Say this much for Ohno: He and trouble have never been strangers.

He has a diamond stud in one ear, a soul patch growing just below his lip and an edge as sharp as the stainless-steel blades set on the gold-plated braces above his skating boots.

His past reads like a series of second chances, beginning with the day his mother walked out on the family. They continued right through December, when allegations -- since dismissed -- surfaced that he and a teammate fixed a qualifying race at the U.S. Olympic trials to make sure another teammate gained a spot on the U.S. relay team.

He was a latchkey kid by age 8, a juvenile delinquent soon after and the national short track champion at 14 -- a speedskating prodigy whose potential was always hemmed in by a bad attitude. His talent promptly won him a place at the U.S. Olympic training center in Lake Placid -- even though the minimum age was 15 -- and just as quickly, his behavior nearly got him thrown out.

Soon after that, Yuki Ohno claimed his son, flew back to Seattle and took Apolo to a remote cabin he'd rented. There, he left his son behind, along with a week's worth of provisions, and told him to decide what he wanted to do. The kid's story is far from finished, but there's no longer any question which direction the arrow is pointed.

Ohno's coaches found their pupil more attentive, and practically unbeatable when his mind was on racing. They worried more about how to get him to the start line than to the finish.

On this night, though, focusing wasn't Ohno's only problem. With his left leg still sore from Saturday's crash, he stayed out of traffic for as long as it was practical and began his bid for the lead with two laps to go, zooming from fifth to second.

Finally, when there was no one left to catch, he circled the track slowly trying to find the father whose sacrifices had made it all happen.

''It's an amazing feeling,'' Ohno said. ''So many years of hard work.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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