For two weeks in February (AP) _ two weeks filled with turmoil, tension, tragedy, and, finally, triumph - the world was amazed and agonized by a sport that it most often ignores: speed skating.
Now, four years later, the venue has changed from Calgary to Albertville, but the principal players in this Olympian drama haven’t. It’s the sports world’s version of a soap opera on ice, and it’s back again after a four-year hiatus.
So, too, are the names that earned the world’s attention, and, in one case, its sympathy, in 1988: Dan Jansen, Bonnie Blair and Uwe-Jens Mey. They figure to do likewise a half-world away from Calgary during yet another frosty February and yet another Olympic Games.
Jansen was the heartbreak kid of those ’88 Olympics in Canada, and millions worldwide sympathized with him. Hours after learning his sister had died of leukemia, Jansen fell to the ice in the 500-meter finals in Calgary, then fell again four days later while on a medal pace in the 1,000. The falls were the first and only of his career, but he will never forget them - if only because the whole world won’t let him.
His tear-jerker of a story earned him the compassion of world leaders and 10,000 letters from well wishers, but it’s a story he would just as soon rewrite, but can’t.
For Jansen, 26, of Greenfield, Wisc., the memories are still too deep-felt, still too recent to be filed away in some forgotten filing cabinet of the mind. Even he even he doesn’t know whether he’ll be lugging the pain-wracked memories of Calgary among his excess baggage.
″It never goes away,″ he said. ″That’s what you are to people.″
Jansen would rather be remembered as a great champion than as a great story, and U.S. coach Peter Mueller, who led Jansen and the other sprinters through a strenous offseason of conditioning that included mock skating on a Milwaukee parking lot, thinks he can.
″That was the old Dan Jansen,″ Mueller said. ″Now, these guys (Mey and Jansen) are always 1-2, 1-2. They’re in their own class right now.″
Mey is one of the few remaining remnants of the once-powerful East German Olympic machine, and the dramatic changes that united his country apparently haven’t affected his skating.
Mey, the defending Olympic 500-meter champion and four-time World Cup champion, and Jansen each won a World Cup race in the final Olympics tuneup Jan. 11-12 in Davos, Switzerland. Mey leads the World Cup standings 144-141, or about the width of a skate blade, and also owns the world record of 36.45, but Jansen’s 36.59 in the Olympic trials in Milwaukee is the world’s fastest this winter.
Of course, Mueller knows Jansen’s competition in Albertville will come as much from the skater’s own mind as from Mey’s strong legs.
″There is a great deal of pressure on Dan, but he’s done a real good job with it,″ Mueller said. ″I can’t speak for him, but I think it will always be in the back of his mind. Good mental preparation begins with good physical preparation. If everybody starts looking at him like he’s the man to beat, it will be much easier for him.″
The woman to beat in the sprints is Blair, the only returning American gold medal winner in any sport. As good as she was in ’88, she’s been even better this season, winning three 500-meter World Cup races.
Blair, 27, the toast of Champaign, Ill., will also be a major player in the 1,000 meters, having set set a rink record in Collalbo, Italy, while winning the final pre-Olympics World Cup race Jan. 12. She also qualified for Albertville in the 1,500, but hasn’t decided whether she’ll skate that race.
″I think my times are right where they need to be,″ said Blair, whose attempt to become the first woman to break the 39-second mark in the 500 may be determined as much by the weather in the French Alps as her competition.
Unlike Calgary’s high-tech indoor track, Albertville’s temporary track is outdoors and subject to the wind, cold and snow that can alter times and, sometimes, winners. The track was built so it easily can be dismantled after the Olympics, resulting in complaints that an inadequate refrigeration system often leaves the surface rough and sandy.
Of course, what would the Olympics be without a speed skating controversy?
The U.S. team roster in 1988 wasn’t determined until hours before the competition when 1,000-meter trials winner David Cruikshank was bumped from the team by sixth-place finisher Tom Cushman. U.S. coaches thought Cushman skated better than Cruikshank in post-Olympic trials races.
Lawsuits, the threat of lawsuits and complaints that a trials winner was bumped led to a new selection process this year, and, ultimately, a new sprint coach in former gold medalist Mueller. He was given a two-year contract to leave the German team and coach the U.S. only last summer.
But while the system and the coach are different, the U.S. team is much the same, with 12 of the 20 skaters in ’88 returning in ’92. The same can’t be said for the radically different teams that will represent the former East Bloc countries.
Christa Luding, known then as Christa Rothenburger, defeated Blair at 1,000 meters in Calgary, but later got married and quit skating. She mounted a comeback last year, but has yet to repeat her world-record times. Angela Hauck, the 1990 world sprint champion for East Germany, skated terribly last year, but has improved to third in the World Cup 500-meter standings.
Igor Zhelezovski, the top men’s 1,000-meter skater last season, will skate in the Olympics under the new United Team banner, rather than that of the former Soviet Union
Reigning world all-around champions Johann Olav Koss of Norway and Gunda Niemann of Germany also figure to play prominent roles. Koss owns world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and has won the last two world all- around titles.
Niemann holds the world record in the 3,000 and hopes to succeed the Netherlands’ Yvonne van Gennip, the 1988 champion in the 1,500, 3,000 and the 5,000, as the dominant women’s distance skater. Emese Hunyady of Austria leads the World Cup standings at 1,500 and 3,000 and also won the last pre-Olympics 1,500 race at Collalbo, with Niemann second, but Niemann won there at 3,000.
Norway’s Geir Karlstad leads the men’s 5,000-meter standings with teammate Koss third at 1,500 and 5,000. Japan’s Toshiyuki Kuroiwa and Zhelezovski are 1-2 at 1,000 and teammates Falko Zandstra and Rintje Ritsma of the Netherlands are 1-2 at 1,500.
The change from an indoor track to an outdoor facility isn’t the only major change in the Olympic speedskating. Short track speed skating, a demonstration sport in Calgary, will be a medal event for the first time in Olympic history.
Unlike long track skating, where two skaters go head-to-head on a 400-meter track against each other and, more importantly, the clock, short track skaters compete in packs on a 111-meter track. With as many as six skaters jostling for position on a track not much longer than a football field, short track skating has been jokingly called Roller Derby on ice.
The short track events include a 500-meter individual race and a 3,000- meter relay for women and a 1,000-meter race and 5,000-meter relay for men. The traditional long track events are the 500, 1,000, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters for men and the 500, 1,000, 1,5000, 3,000 and 5,000 for women.
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