Commentary

Ohno falls short of Olympic legends

Updated: February 19, 2010, 10:03 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Apolo Ohno could pass Bonnie Blair as the most decorated Winter Olympian in American history this weekend. That is, he could if you subscribe to the same accounting methods employed by AIG, Enron and Bernie Madoff.

[+] EnlargeBonnie Blair
Mike Powell/Getty ImagesBonnie Blair set the record for most medals won by a U.S. winter Olympian.

Begin with that clumsy term: most decorated Winter Olympian, as if Olympic champs are trimmed like Christmas trees. The term is a merely a convenient method to equate quantity with quality.

Blair won five gold medals and a silver over three Olympics (1988, 1992 and 1994). Eric Heiden was even more impressive, earning five gold medals at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics alone, winning every race at every distance, from the sprint of the 500 meters to the marathon of the 10,000 meters. Ohno, meanwhile, has won two gold medals, two silvers and two bronzes in three Olympics.

Saying two golds, two silvers and two bronzes add up to as much as five golds is like saying two dollars, two quarters and two dimes add up to as much as five single dollar bills. "Apolo is going to have to keep skating so that he can add more gold ones," Blair said with a laugh when asked about the subject Tuesday.

Plus, Ohno's medals are in, well, short-track speed skating.

Both short track and long track involve skating as fast as you can around a rink, but equating the two is like saying Arena Football is on par with the NFL. Long track is aged gouda; short-track is the Cheese Whiz you pour over nachos. Long track is Alec Baldwin, short track is Billy Baldwin.

"I love short track. It's a blast to skate, a blast to watch," said Blair, who was world short-track champion in 1986 before she started concentrating on long track. "But as you can tell from the other night, you never know what's going to happen. One of the things we like to say in speed-skating is, 'That's short-track.' Because you never know what's going to happen."

[+] EnlargeEric Heiden
Tony Duffy/Getty ImagesEric Heiden's five golds in one Olympics is tough to match.

No kidding. Consider how Ohno "won" half of his medals.

His first Olympic medal was at Salt Lake in 2002 when there was a final-turn mishap that was the equivalent of a Walmart opening the morning after Thanksgiving. The skater who had been in last place glided across for the gold medal while Ohno literally crawled across the line for the silver. Ohno "won" his first gold medal in the next race even though he was the second skater across the finish line. That's because the winner was disqualified for cross-checking, a disqualification that prompted an official protest by South Korea and unofficial death threats.

Then on Saturday night, Ohno "tied" Blair's total only because two Korean skaters ahead of him bumped and crashed, allowing him to move up from fourth to second.

Everyone together now: "That's short-track."

Sure, crashes and spills happen in long track as well (tweeting Dan Jansen). They are skating on ice, after all. But when you fall in long track, you only take yourself out of competition -- you don't launch someone from fourth to a gold medal as if he was shot from a T-shirt cannon. As Blair said, "Even though I enjoyed that head-to-head competition, part of what drove me to long track is that if I won or if I lost, I knew it was all on my shoulders and didn't have anything to do with anybody else."

[+] EnlargeAplolo Ohno
Saeed Khan/Getty imagesApolo Ohno has a chance to set the record this weekend.

Long track is decided by skaters who spend their careers winning or losing solely on their own efforts. Short track is as random as a coin flip, a combination of athletics and clown-car pileups.

Ohno and Blair may be tied for most winter medals, but if you really want to be considered the most decorated Winter Olympian in American history, it helps if some of those decorations are 24-karat instead of cubic zirconia.

I will grant Ohno this, though: He totally kills Blair when it comes to "Dancing With the Stars" championships.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com