Winter Olympics 2002 Winter Olympics 2002


Did they or didn't they?

More on the great short-track speed skating controversy

Posted: Wednesday February 13, 2002 6:33 PM

SALT LAKE CITY -- By now, many Olympic fans have heard something about a controversy involving Sports Illustrated's Olympic Preview cover subject, Apolo Ohno. Something about fixing a race. How does such a thing happen in short-track speedskating and how can one tell? This is what happened.

At the U.S. trials last month in Utah, Ohno and Rusty Smith had already assured themselves of positions on the U.S. team based on points accumulated in prior races. Ohno and Smith were set to skate in the final event of the trials, a 1,000-meter race, with Ron Biondo and Shani Davis. Biondo's spot on the six-man team appeared solid, but Davis had only one chance to qualify for the Olympics: by winning the race and knocking Tommy O'Hare out of the final spot.

O'Hare was not in the final race, so he watched from the side, hoping that with the likes of Ohno and Smith in the race, Davis wouldn't be able to pull off a major upset. However, that is exactly what happened. Davis placed first, with Smith second and Ohno a surprise third.

The dynamic of the race raised suspicions that Ohno and perhaps Smith had tanked in order to get Davis onto the Olympic team. Ohno is close friends with Davis, but not with O'Hare. In the days that followed, an arbitration panel in Colorado Springs, Colo., heard testimony from the skaters involved and several other witnesses, three of whom said they overheard Ohno arranging to let Davis win. Those skaters later recanted their testimony or were found to have inconsistent elements in their stories. Smith also filed a defamation lawsuit against O'Hare but later withdrew it just as O'Hare was withdrawing his formal complaint.

One thing is clear: If you watch the replay of the race, you'll see Ohno actually begin to celebrate by pumping his fists before crossing the finish line. He then skates over to Davis and gives him a hug just past the line. To this day, there is no concrete proof that any skaters violated the spirit of competition. Ohno has since acknowledged he may have been holding back during the race, not to benefit Davis but to avoid an unnecessary collision with other skaters in a race he didn't need to win.

This is a mess for short-track skating, which is not a sport on the radar screen of mass appeal. If Ohno were to medal in each of his races (individual 500 meters, 1,000m, 1,500m and relay), he could vault not only himself but also his sport into the public consciousness, where it has never been before.

Time has given everyone involved ample chance to massage their stories regarding what did or didn't take place. So without drawing any conclusions, we present a sampling of comments made during the telecast of the event by Todd Harris and former Olympian Eric Flaim, the announcers for Outdoor Life Network, which broadcast the trials:

"Look at this picture and you say, 'Who is the big surprise to get here?' and it has to be Shani Davis."

"Apolo is laying back. The great white shark is laying back."

"Shani Davis is leading this race with two laps to go. Unbelievable. Is Shani Davis going to make it happen? This is unbelievable. He could make the Olympic team, Shani Davis, if he wins this race. Oh, my!"

[After a replay of the finish.] "Look at that, Apolo is cheering for Shani Davis. He laid back and let it happen."

"I want to tell you something right now: I don't know if those three starters let Shani Davis win that race, but that may have knocked Tommy O'Hare off the Olympic team."

"You could tell Apolo was not going to strike."

"I don't know what's going on here, but I don't think Smith, Ohno or Biondo skated this race 100 percent."

"Look, Apolo's already celebrating for him, as is Ron, and Shani knows it."

"I don't think Ron gave it 100 percent right there."

"Well, if you get a shot of the backstretch of the large oval, on the gray line you see a sight that -- I don't know if you have words to describe it -- Tommy O'Hare on the inner grey lane, the warmup lane making a slow lap, and I think he's just seen his chances of making the Olympic team disappear. That is really ... that's too bad."

"Wow, that is unfortunate."

At the very least, the last comment aptly describes the impact on the sport and the skaters involved. Team tactics are commonplace in distance running, but as an element of a sport that needs positive publicity, it's nothing more than a black eye.

Sports Illustrated staff writer Brian Cazeneuve is in Utah covering the Olympics for the magazine and Check back regularly for more behind-the-scenes reports from Salt Lake City.