• U.S.

1992 Winter Olympics: Blades Of Gold

7 minute read
Paul A. Witteman/Albertville

Athletes rarely get second chances. Normally they can hold on to their moment of glory only briefly before someone younger, stronger and faster grabs it away. But last week at the speed-skating oval in Albertville, several leading contestants had a chance to relive events from the Calgary Olympics four years ago. Some hoped to repeat their success; others sought to redeem their failures.

The races took place under conditions far different from those in Calgary’s stunning indoor oval, which is every speed skater’s picture of paradise. In Albertville, days of driving rain that left the ice bumpy alternated with sunny ones that left it slushy. World records? Personal bests? This track was about survival, not records, and woe to the skater unable to block out the noise of the TGV supertrain from Lyons rushing by on tracks 600 ft. from the north curve.

First to survive was German librarian Gunda Niemann, who had finished seventh in the event at Calgary. Niemann carries not a teddy bear but a judo doll to each competition, and it brought her luck. She shot from the starting line faster than countrywoman Heike Warnicke and won the 3,000 m going away by a comfortable three seconds. Back in the pack, but victorious in a different sort of race, with no finish line, was American Mary Docter. She caused a pre- Olympic sensation with the admission that she was battling an addiction to drugs and alcohol. Docter finished clear-eyed, 15th and slightly disappointed. “In 1988 I didn’t train hardly at all, and I finished 19th,” she said.

Finishing anywhere but first would have been a disappointment for sprinter Bonnie Blair, who captivated audiences in 1988 with her killer starts and unabashed tears of joy on the medal stand after her 500-m victory. After that she struggled and ranked only fifth overall at last year’s world championships. “I just didn’t feel comfortable on my skates,” Blair said. By Albertville, she had regained form and confidence, though, and seemed once again invulnerable.

At least that is how her principal rival, a Chinese pixie with a Peter Pan haircut, saw it. Ye Qiaobo had expected to challenge Blair in Calgary but had tested positive for steroids and was sent home in disgrace. Ye was banned for 15 months and vilified in the Chinese press for bringing disgrace on her family and country. Aggrieved, Ye tried to point out that it was not she but the team doctor who was the culprit. “I hate him very much,” she said. The hate turned to vindication when team officials admitted that it was he, not she, who was responsible.

Encouraged by hundreds of fan letters, Ye decided to give her sport another try. “I am a little flower that must open,” she said, unfolding her fingers like petals. Ye spent endless hours in front of a VCR, trying to learn the secret of Blair’s near flawless technique, and in the process developed an awe of her rival’s abilities. Skating three pairs ahead of Bonnie, Ye got off to her trademark slow start in the 500. Then on the backstretch as she accelerated, Ye claims she was obstructed on the lane changeover by the Soviet skater against whom she was paired. Ye nonetheless finished strongly, and her clocking of 40.51 was flashing in first place on the electronic timer when Blair set the toe of her left blade into the ice 10 minutes later.

Blair wins races in the first 100 m, and she was .24 sec. ahead of Ye’s pace when the edges of her blades bit into the first turn. On the backstretch, an army of Blair’s supporters were in full cry as she passed. “I didn’t hear them,” she said. When she broke the electronic finish line, Blair was .18 sec. front of Ye and had the gold. Asked about the jockeying for position and the refusal of race officials to allow her a rerun, Ye blinked and graciously said, “It is a pity.”

Ye’s silver was the first winter medal for her country, and she had another chance for gold in the 1,000. As did Blair, who treated the intervening 1,500- m race as training, easing up for the last 400 m. In that race, German Jacqueline Boerner edged teammate Niemann for the gold, completing a comeback almost as dramatic as Ye’s. While training on her bike outside Berlin in August 1990, Boerner was struck — deliberately, she claims — by a driver behind the wheel of a Trabant, the flimsiest vehicle on four wheels. “If it had been a real car, I wouldn’t be here,” she can now joke. But even Trabants are tougher than bikes, and Boerner broke an ankle and tore ligaments in her knee, which sent her to a hospital for months.

For Blair, her final race offered a chance to better Calgary, where she won a bronze in the 1,000. This time at the Albertville track, Bonnie skated first, posting a 1:21.9 for Ye to top. With no repeat of the jostling during the lane changeover, Ye surged toward the finish line and vindication. When she lifted her head to the scoreboard, the Chinese skater had certainly achieved that. But by the incomprehensibly slim margin of .02 sec., less than the blink of an eye, Blair had won a second gold medal, making her the first American woman to take home three gold medals from the Winter Games.

America’s Dan Jansen had the most emotion-laden second chance at Albertville. On the morning of the 500-m race at Calgary, Jansen’s older sister had died of leukemia. Favored to win, he had planned to dedicate the gold medal to her, but fell on the first turn. Later, in the 1,000 m, he fell again. Despair is too mild a word to describe the look on his face as he lifted himself from the ice. Four years later, a still introverted Jansen and his protective family assert that Calgary no longer haunts him. “There are other things in his life now,” says his brother Michael. “He’s married, and he’s not as serious.” Coming into the Albertville Games, Jansen was in the best shape of his life, buoyed by the enthusiasm and whipcracking of a new coach, Peter Mueller.

The day of the 500-m race broke gray and rainy once again, making the oval slow and sloppy. When Jansen hit the first curve, spectators who remembered the disaster in Calgary held their breath. In a flash he was through safely, drove down the backstretch into the far curve and finished in 37.46. But he knew immediately that the time probably wouldn’t be good enough. It was not. In the next race Japan’s Junichi Inoue hit the finish line in 37.26. And then Jansen’s longtime rival and closest friend among the competitors, Uwe-Jens Mey, topped Inoue with a time of 37.14, capturing the gold for Germany and repeating his victory at Calgary. Said Mey after the race: “Maybe his nerves didn’t hold out as much as he imagined. The Olympics don’t obey normal rules.” Later Japan’s Toshiyuki Kuroiwa came within .04 sec. of stealing Mey’s medal, and that pushed Jansen to fourth. The American has another chance for a medal in the 1,000-m race. “I’ll be O.K.,” he said. But unless he finds a place on the victory stand this week, Jansen will not be among those who reaped their second chance at Albertville.

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