Olympic sport short on legitimacy

Critics complain that short track speedskating is little more than roller derby on ice. And you know what, says Jim Caple. They've got a point.

Updated: February 12, 2006, 7:56 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

TORINO -- Short track makes ice dancing, jai alai and Florida vote-counting look respectable.

Critics complain that short track is nothing more than roller derby but that's insulting to all the legitimate, hard-working roller derby queens out there. Short track is a bad punchline, a sport that should come with cream pies, joy buzzers and whoopee cushions. It's slogan should be, "Nyuk, Nyuk, Nyuk."

Consider Sunday open-mike night at the track.

The men's 1,500 meters was billed as the long-awaited grudge match between Apolo Anton Ohno and the Korean skaters who are still furious about the 1,500 from the last Olympics. Naturally, it didn't work out that way. Nothing in short track ever does. Ohno wasn't matched against his Korean rivals in any of the heats and he didn't qualify for the final. He caught his hand on a competitor's skate near the end of a semifinal heat and by the time he regained his balance, he was too far back to catch up.

"It really broke my heart to watch that," said Allison Baver, Ohno's teammate and girlfriend. "I know he's the best skater in the world and he didn't have a chance to show that tonight."

Heart-breaking? I don't think so. Routine is more like it. Someone is always slipping or interfering or getting disqualified. The whole problem is the track is just too short and the turns are simply too tight for accidents and fouls not to happen on a regular basis. They should just race around a bathtub instead.

Watching a short track race is like watching Dick Cheney go quail hunting. Something always goes wrong.

And when it does, the skaters usually just shrug and say, "That's short track." The thing is so predictable that a colleague began writing his story eight hours ahead of time Sunday, assuming something like this was bound to happen. He didn't need to do much more than fill in the quotes.

Here's how messed up short track is: It holds a "B" final just in case too many skaters are disqualified in the A final and they don't have anyone left to win all three medals. It's so silly that Ohno didn't even realize he had qualified for the B final due to (what else?) the disqualification of another skater. The other five skaters were lined up on the ice ready to go when he suddenly hopped onto the rink, tossed his skate guards into the corner and took his position just in time.

"I didn't even know I was racing," Ohno said. "I was sitting around in these clothes and they said the B final was on the ice. I threw my stuff on and ran out there. ... The volunteers must not have known what was going on. I could have been a crazed fan going onto the ice."

And here's the thing. All six skaters in the B final had a faster winning time than the winner of the A final. Ohno was a half-second faster than gold medalist Hyun-Soo Ahn.

Nike's marketing machine has made Ohno a star even though he has never crossed the finish line first in an Olympic final. He got his gold medal at the 2002 Olympics when the judges disqualified the winner, Kim Dong-Sung. He won a silver medal when there was a three-car pileup at the end of the race, was disqualified for interfering in another race and was in a three-team crash in a relay. So Sunday was just another night at the track.

Don't get me wrong. I like speed skating. I'm not a fanatic about it, but I appreciate long track, where championships are determined by endurance, athleticism and technique.

In short track, however, championships are determined by the person who avoids slipping on the banana peel.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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