SALT LAKE CITY -- The pall of Saturday's 1,000-meter short-track melee hung in the air, the six stitches in Apolo Anton Ohno's left thigh an ugly reminder.
Though Ohno's strategy for Wednesday's 1,500-meter race was to skate in front from the start, five skaters burst ahead of him. And instead of charging forward, Ohno, haunted by the memory of having his legs taken out by Ahn Hyun-Soo of South Korea, hung back.
With less than four laps to go, the racers were still packed in too tightly, leaving no room for Ohno to maneuver. But he had no choice except to force his way through traffic. Finding a minuscule fissure in the pack, Ohno bypassed three racers so swiftly that he seemed to teleport from fifth to second place with only two laps to go. Coming off the next-to-last turn, the Seattle teen powered on his finishing kick, storming forward to duck inside South Korean Kim Dong-Sung. Instead, the reigning World Cup champ jerked his torso into Ohno's lane, preventing him from overtaking the lead.
Instinctively, Ohno stood up with his hands in the air, his mouth forming a small "o." He pulled up just in time to slow down and avoid crashing into Kim or running over a turn marker. Kim nonchalantly sped ahead, and as the field crossed the finish line, Kim was in first.
Right behind him, Ohno pumped his fist, betraying an inkling that the judges would intervene on his behalf. As the replays went up over the scoreboard, Kim's block seemed painfully obvious. So Ohno circled the ice like a lion stalking an antelope. And the crowd hushed, in anticipation of yet another rinkside controversy.
The South Koreans, however, were already full-on celebrating. Perhaps hoping to sell the victory to the referees who now convened quietly, a South Korean official pushed a flag across the ice and motioned to Kim, who picked it up and started waving it around.
But then, the inevitable judging controversy (Deus ex machina, anyone?): Kim was DQ'd for cross-tracking. Apolo collapsed to his knees as the crowd roared. Dong-Sung slammed his country's flag to the ice, where it lay crumpled while Ohno hugged his coaches and friends and took his victory lap.
The Korean officials immediately filed a protest, but during the medal ceremony, Ohno calmly strolled onto the carpet, unaffected by the fracas swirling around him. He ran his hand through his hair, then raised his arms to rile up his fans, hundreds wearing faux Ohno soul patches.
The cheers weren't quite deafening enough to drown out the boos.
At the press conference, Ohno was still dazed by the turn of events. "The Korean came over on me hard," he said. "I can't explain the feeling I have right now."
The other medalists were equally pleased. "I'm very happy with the results, and there is nothing else I can say," Canadian Marc Gagnon said. He then stage-whispered an aside to Ohno: "Apolo Ohno is too strong." Clearly, Gagnon was not about to disagree with a decision that gave him the bronze medal.
Neither would silver medalist Li Jiajun of China. "I respect the judge's decision," he said simply.
But other skaters claimed that the moment Ohno stood up to indicate Kim's block going into the final turn was as convincing as a Steve Kerr flop.
Choi Min-Kyung, a member of South Korea's gold-medal women's 3,000-meter relay team, was disappointed for her teammate. "I didn't think Kim did anything wrong," Choi said through a translator. "I think it was unfair that he was disqualified. He worked really hard, but now he has to accept the judge's decision. I hope he can forget what happened tonight, and that it doesn't affect his 500-meter race on Saturday."
Some weren't so, um, polite. "It's absurd that the Korean was disqualified," raged Italy's Fabio Carta, his blond locks flouncing. "We should use a rifle on Ohno."
But all the outrage and booing wouldn't interfere with Ohno's joy, unstated or otherwise.
"I'm so happy, regardless of the outcome," he said in standard PC Olympic-speak. But the expression that washed over his face when the ref dropped the DQ and Kim dropped the flag betrayed his true feelings.
Apolo was overcome with relief. And years of pent-up pressure and failed expectations -- not to mention a certain silver-medal race -- were now permanently erased from his memory.
Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.