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Skin in the Game

The Human Drama

How short-track speedskating won this writer’s heart

I don’t think you can truly appreciate the Winter Games unless you grew up watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports, on which a lot of the funkier events were nothing more than annual stops for the show’s tour. Consequently, when the joys of skeleton finally made it to the Games a couple of Olympiads back, they were not unfamiliar to those of us who watched the famous Cresta Run every year and can still rattle off the curves in the track at St. Moritz — “Curzon! Brabazon! Battledore! Shuttlecock!” — as though they were minor houses at Hogwarts. Ski jumping, in which we heard that some airborne Austrian was “pushing it waaaaayyyyyy down the hill,” was an annual delight, and remains so to this day. And where would figure skating be in the national consciousness if it didn’t speak in the voice of Dick Button?

(That is not even to mention the legendary Vinko Bogataj, the “Agony of Defeat” dude who pinwheeled off the side of the ski jump ramp and into glory. My favorite story about him is not the standing ovation he got at the show’s 20th-anniversary dinner, but that, once, as he was driving to an interview with ABC, he got into … wait for it … a car crash. Like Letterman, Vinko should have changed networks at that point, I’m thinking.)

Alas, the show died too soon to enfold the X Games–ish events in its wide embrace; I think Jim McKay would have dug the halfpipe. He would have loved any sport in which a commentator can describe someone as being “a machine gun of awesomeness,” which is something that actually happened on my TV last week. And short-track speedskating. He would have loved short track. Wide World would have loved short track. After all, every year, Wide World brought us not only barrel jumping from Grossinger’s in the Catskills, but also demolition derby and the completely idiotic figure-eight racing, both from Islip, New York. Short track is nothing if it is not a combination of all three of those events, except for the barrels, though I guarantee you, somebody at one point has thought, Hey, what if we make these crazy bastards jump over stuff, too?

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Short track has my heart, and I can tell you exactly when it won it. It was February 17, 2002. Australian Steven Bradbury lined up for the 1,000-meter final. Also in the race were Apolo Anton Ohno of the United States; a Korean named Ahn Hyun-Soo, who is not named that anymore (and we’ll get to that in a minute); and a couple of other people who were reckoned to be better skaters than Bradbury was.

(Bradbury’s career was almost preposterously star-crossed. In 1994, a competitor’s skate blade slashed him in the thigh, severing all four quadriceps muscles and costing Bradbury four liters of blood. Eight years later, Bradbury tried to leap over a skater who’d fallen in front of him. He failed in the attempt, and crashed into the barrier, breaking his neck. He spent several weeks in a halo brace. The barrels may not be such a good idea after all.)

To get to the finals, Bradbury advanced in his quarterfinal heat when someone was disqualified, and he came through the semifinals when three of the people in front of him crashed, which happens a lot, as we shall see. At that point, were I a skater, and I saw that Steven Bradbury was in my heat, I would have doubled my life insurance. Anyway, Bradbury took his place amid the iron of his sport and the race began.

Bradbury was skating last, 15 meters behind, when the leaders entered the final turn. Ahead of him, the entire rest of the field — all four skaters, including Ohno — somehow got tangled with each other and went skidding off the track. It looked like the middle of the chariot race from Ben-Hur. Bradbury was so far behind that the final stretch was clear by the time he sailed through the carnage and won an Olympic gold medal that is every bit as authentic as those won by Mike Eruzione or Jean-Claude Killy.

I’ve seen horse races end like that — though, in many cases, the races did not end well for the horses involved — but never a competition among humans. Steven Bradbury won by being the only person in his race who did not fall down. That was how people used to win at demolition derby and at figure-eight racing on Wide World. How can you not fall in love with a sport like that? How can anyone claiming to be a patriot in the country that invented NASCAR, for pity’s sake, not fall in love with a sport like that? Jim McKay would have adored it. Steven Bradbury would have been the Vinko Bogataj who won, the “Thrill of Victory” dude for about 10 years. He would have been given the key to the city by the mayor of Islip, New York.

♦♦♦

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So, where are we this year? Well, Apolo Ohno is in the broadcast booth, and we’ve already had at least one race that qualified as what the Australians have come to call (honest) “doing a Bradbury.” China’s Li Jianrou won the women’s 500-meter by virtue of being the only competitor who didn’t fall down. (Great Britain’s Elise Christie actually came across the line third, but it was determined that Christie caused the crash, so South Korean Park Seung-hi won the bronze by finishing fourth. Short-track math.) Then, in the men’s relay, American Eddy Alvarez and South Korean Lee Ho-Suk collided. After some nervous minutes, the American team was shuffled along into the final and the Koreans were shuffled out of the competition. Short track is cruel, but it is fair.

(Two things about this last race: First, Eddy Alvarez came to short track after beginning a career as an inline skater, and I don’t think anyone has yet properly appreciated the contribution inline skates have made to American winter sports, which has been significant enough, I think, to forgive inline skating’s complicity in D2: The Mighty Ducks. It took the geopolitical collapse of the Soviet empire to expand the NHL’s talent base to Eastern Europe, but it took only the invention of inline skates to stretch it to Florida, and several speedskaters, of both short- and long-track varieties, began their careers the way Alvarez began his. And, second, is there really someone named Lee Ho-Suk? Is there a werewolf looking for him in London?)

Then there is the saga of Viktor Ahn, the former Ahn Hyun-Soo. Remember him? Fell at the distant feet of Steven Bradbury, like the entire rest of the short track world did? Ahn was born in South Korea. He was raised in South Korea. He skated for South Korea. He won three Olympic gold medals and a bronze for South Korea. He fell down for South Korea. (For which, perhaps, he still gets the odd Christmas card every year from New South Wales in Australia.) Then, this being short track and all, things got a little strange.

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Ahn hurt his knee in 2008, and he felt that the South Korean skating establishment was stiffing him on support as he rehabilitated himself. So, Ahn essentially declared himself an international free agent, the Reggie Jackson of winter sports. He sought a country for which to compete, one that would support him in the fashion he believed he deserved. As is usually the case in free agency, it all came down to a choice between the big-market countries — in this case, the United States and Russia. As it turns out, Russia already had hired Ahn’s old coach from South Korea, and that coach pointed out to Ahn that the Russian short-track roster was pretty thin as opposed to that of the United States, and that Ahn was more likely to pick up more playing time in Russia than in the U.S. Thus did the pursuit of Ahn combine all the finest elements of baseball free agency and the recruitment of college basketball players. Thus did Ahn Hyun-Soo become Viktor Ahn, Russian national hero, after his victory in the 1,000-meter final on Saturday. Thus did Viktor kiss the ice of his adopted homeland.

Once every four years — or every two now, since they jacked around with the Olympic schedule, risking the wrath of Zeus — we get knocked out of our comfort zone a little and wind up rooting for athletes who compete in sports we don’t totally understand. This was the essential truth that Wide World taught a generation of fans: that competition is competition, even if you don’t completely grasp the rules of the game, let alone the people who devote their lives and hearts to playing it. This is especially true for the snow-and-ice events of the Winter Olympics. We have hockey, and we understand that. But we also have skeleton, with its echoes of the Cresta Run, and we have all those endless cross-country events, even the ones with guns that, as good Americans, we really ought to understand, but don’t. And I have short track, which is on the thin edge of chaos in every turn, much like life, I guess. Watching it this year, I began to think, you know, those outdoor NHL games are a huge hit. Why not run a short-track race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the tightest track on the NASCAR circuit? Let them skate four-wide into the far turn. Let people stand up and cheer.

Filed Under: 2014 Winter Olympics, Sochi, Speedskating, Charles P. Pierce

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Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.

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