What you see isn't always what you get when it comes to Ohno

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2002

He left juvenile delinquency and some of the best skaters in the world in his wake.

But there is still one opponent Apolo Anton Ohno will need luck to shake.

Controversy.

America's cover boy will leave these Winter Games and head home to Seattle with one gold medal and one silver, an impressive haul to be sure.

But after he was disqualified in the 500-meter and the U.S. team upset in the 5,000-meter relay, that's still two less than Ohno's A-list promoters -- Nike, IMG and NBC -- had him on the hook to deliver. And just as memorable as how many he won was the way Ohno won them.

''This is a crazy Olympics. Anything can happen,'' he said afterward. ''It was an unbelievable experience. I came back from injury and I was sick, too. I'm definitely disappointed I didn't race at my best, but I had my chance to be there.''

''You've got to be perfect,'' Ohno added, ''and I wasn't perfect.''

In Saturday night's 500-meter semifinal, controversy caught him in its grasp one more time. It was the third time in three races that things ended badly for short track's most recognizable star. In that sense, his sport has become a confusing metaphor for these Winter Games. Like figure skating, what you see isn't always what you get.

Ohno got off to his usual slow start and was hanging back in third place when he made his move to grab the second qualifying spot with 1 1/2 laps to go. But with Satoru Terao on his right in the next-to-last turn, Ohno's outside skate blade caught the Japanese skater and upended him like a shovel dislodging a chunk of ice. The move sent Terao careening into the padded sideboard and the judges reaching for their notebooks.

Ohno eventually finished the race in third place, then slowly circled the ice, much as he had in Wednesday night's 1,500, awaiting the judges' verdict. Unlike the last time, this call went against him.

He stole one last look at the video board, hoping to catch the replay while most of the stunned crowd sat in silence. With his quest for four medals out of reach and a few catcalls ringing in his ears, Ohno grinned and left the rink.

''The Japanese guy was wide on the corner and I came up on him. I barely touched him. He's so light, I think he was going down already,'' he said.

Say this much for Ohno and controversy -- they both sell.

Once again, his appearance in the building made the Salt Lake Ice Center the place to be. It was packed and the luminaries in the crowd ranged from Salt Lake Organizing Committee boss Mitt Romney to former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani to American figure skating bronze medalist Michelle Kwan to one-time U.S. short track ace Cathy Turner -- the closest thing short track offers to the late Joannie Weston, the rugged ''Blonde Amazon'' of Roller Derby fame.

But there was no doubt in the house about who was the star.

Fake versions of the soul patch that dangled from Ohno's lower lip adorned the crowd, including a matching pair worn by one woman and her dog. Whether it's Ohno's relentless promoters or his considerable achievements at age 19 -- he was No. 1 in the world at every distance last season -- he rarely fails to provide a buzz.

Even his quarterfinal race offered a delicious plot twist.

Among the four skaters in that group was Italian Fabio Carta, whose mouth moves faster than either his skates or his brain. After Ohno's disputed gold medal win over South Korean Kim Dong-sung in the 1,500, Carta, who finished fourth, said the American was lucky not to be kicked out. On the bell lap, Ohno swooped in to take the second and final qualifying place from Carta and held on to advance to the next round of the 500.

It was there that his luck ran out.

''I knew I had a little downfall after my start. I didn't really get off the line too well. But that's all right,'' he said after the disqualification. ''I still have the relay.''

Oops.

With 26 laps to go, teammate Rusty Smith went down after tripping over a lane marker and any chance the U.S. relay team had for a medal went down with him.

In some ways, the outcome was almost fitting.

The four relay skaters -- Ohno, Smith, Ron Biondo and Dan Weinstein -- were already mired in one controversy caused by last month's allegations of race fixing. Biondo had claimed he overheard Ohno shouting, ''Don't pass!'' during the 1,000-meter trials, supporting former Tommy O'Hare's contention that Ohno had helped his friend Shani Davis get onto the Olympic team.

But just when it seemed they put that problem behind, down went Smith.

''I think we were in perfect position,'' Ohno said. ''No doubt in my mind if we wouldn't have gone down and I was there in the end, I could have done some magic. But that's just how it is.''

Ohno's life off the ice has been no less eventful. He met President Bush and Lance Armstrong, who could tell him a thing or two about what it's like to be dogged by an opponent who refuses to play fair. Like the president, he's learned what it's like to live with an armed bodyguard for a shadow.

A Utah state trooper drew that duty after Ohno won the 1,500-meter following Kim's disqualification. The barrage of threatening e-mails forced the U.S. Olympic Committee to shut down its Internet server and contact the FBI. Ohno admitted he wasn't worried about the angry missives so much as whether the six stitches in his left thigh would let him get off to the quick start the 500 demands.

He turned out to be right.

Soon after that race finished, Guiliani and his entourage departed, deciding not to stick around for the relay. Apparently they had enough controversy for one night.

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



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