Sochi 2014: Short track review – ‘Crazy’ sport brings joy and heartache

Sochi 2014: One minute you're up, the next you're sprawled on the ice, looking on hopelessly as your rivals dart clear. Welcome to the unfair world of short track.

By Fiona O'Brien

Thrills, spills, tears and tumbles. Sochi’s speed skating had it all, cementing its place as the most stirring sport on show at 2014’s Winter Olympics, where heartbreak and euphoria were separated by the finest of margins.

The premise of short track is simple: skate as fast as you can, along a track that is so compact it consists mainly of bends, and oh, yeah. You have to battle it out with at least three other athletes.

It was made for drama. For collisions. For controversial refereeing decisions. For good fortune. Or misfortune. And Sochi ticked all of the boxes.

Every games I’ve been to there’s always some kind of controversy around a decision. It’s the Olympic Games, people just go crazy

Team GB coach Nicky Gooch

In a world where anyone can, at any given time, name the fastest man in the world, or the strongest man in the world, short track stars are virtually anonymous to the public, which is outrageous when one ponders the combination of the similar disciplines that are required.

Yes, it helps that Usain Bolt has an abundance of charisma that has made him an advertiser’s dream, but Wladimir Klitchsko is hardly known for his personality, though due to his heavyweight titles is famous worldwide.

Short track skaters can bend their bodies to a 20 degree angle, reach speeds in excess of 20 km/h and have to be flighty enough to battle their way around a course that would leave Mario Kart characters for dust.

All the while, they have to marry a combination of ruthlessness with cautiousness to avoid any altercations that leave them penalised, and erase four years preparation for Olympic glory.

Yes, champion sprinters have a similar pressure on their shoulders, where four years of hard work come down to a performance that lasts less than ten seconds.

But we all learn how to run at a young age, how many of us can imagine battling it out on the ice without resembling Bambi?

And how often would a sprinter’s moment of truth be jeopardised by another athlete swerving into their lane and hurtling them to the ground? Welcome to short track speed skating.

UNIVERSALLY APPEALING

Stressing the fact that any person can win on the day, especially with the pressures of becoming an Olympic medallist involved, medals were distributed erratically, with no pattern of either shock victories or dominance by favourites.

Seven different nations across three continents claimed medals in this sport, with Russia topping the charts on three golds, one silver and one bronze, ahead of China (2-3-1) and South Korea (2-1-2).

One individual who left all ins his wake was Russia’s Viktor Ahn, who won three gold medals for South Korea at the 2006 Torino Games but fell out with national officials and took up Russian nationality.

Ahn claimed three gold medals and a bronze in Sochi to take his overall wins count to six, more than anyone else in the sport. His eight medals in total also matched the record of US skater Apolo Anton Ohno.

“There’s something to be said for what he’s gone through emotionally and physically as an athlete,” said Ohno, in reference to Ahn’s change of citizenship.

Compare short track with the Scandinavian dominated cross country or Dutch dominated speed skating however, and it’s clear to see that this sport is one that is universally appealing.

Sochi organisers seemed to agree too, scheduling much of the short track events later in the second week among the big guns of winter sports; bobsleigh and ice hockey.

Inevitably, the focus of the British media was concentrated on the trials and tribulations of Elise Christie’s Sochi campaign, and the promising medal prospect’s three disqualifications.

Her first, in the ladies 500m final saw her aggressive approach go against her as she was penalised for taking out Italian skater Arianna Fontana when she attempted to find space on the inside.

To many, it would appear that Christie was obstructed, and had nowhere else to go as the ruthless Italian deliberately closed up any space for her to squeeze through.

But the referee’s decision was final, and Christie at least had shown promise, with two more events to come.

Christie had previously stated that in the build up to Sochi she had adapted her game-plan, to no longer rely on her speed abilities to stay at the front of the pack and control the pace.

She had used the past year to learn how to fight amongst the pack, to battle her way out from tight positions and become more of a fighter.

The Scot seemed to calm down later in the 1500m event, but was left baffled when she was not deemed to have crossed the finish line, after wandering too far inside the track boundaries.

All was not lost however, her strongest event was to come in the 1000m. Surely the reigning European champion could use her heartbreak from the previous two events to her advantage?

A complete change of tactics saw the devastated Scot learn her lesson. In the first heat, she was content with resting behind the pace-setters, and with a few laps to go made her move.

She darted along the outside, careful not to infringe any of her rivals, and sped past them to finish almost a whole lap ahead.

This was promising. She seemed fast enough to bat off the competition even when they had a headstart, and had the endurance to accelerate along the wider route along the outside.

In the semi-final though, her tactics seemed to come up short again. She was placed in the favourable inside lane.

With her talent, at her favoured distance, this surely was the time to rely on her instincts of getting ahead of the pack and staying there?

But Christie opted to repeat her earlier round tactics and from the front position drifted back in the hope that the action would catch out the women in front of her.

She had no such luck as the rest of the group stayed on their feet, so she again mounted a swoop to overtake her rivals inside her.

This time however, the competition was much fiercer than that in her earlier battles, and she was unable to catch up on the faster skaters with any such ease.

Stuck behind the Chinese Jianrou Li in third position, Christie forced her way through and the two hit the ground – was Christie’s trailing hand to blame?

A tense wait ensued while the referees deliberated who, if anyone, would be advanced as Christie felt her medal dreams slide away from her.

Inevitably, it was not to be and she was penalised, crashing out of all three of her events.

UPSIDE DOWN

A saying I have is ‘the Olympics is a great leveller.’ So the favourites don’t always come away with the medals. The Olympics just turns it upside down

Coach Gooch

Her heartbreak was intensified by the online abuse she had faced from supporters of athletes she had impeded in previous rounds, and appeared to affect her frame of mind in a sport where focus is key.

Did the pressures of being a British medal hope take its toll in a sport where so many other factors can chip away at an athlete’s psyche?

Almost foretelling what was to become of his protégé, Christie’s coach Nicky Gooch stressed the dramatic nature of speed skating in an Olympics prior to the games.

“Every games I’ve been to there’s always some kind of controversy around a decision. It’s the Olympic Games, people just go crazy,” he said.

“It happens every four years so it’s the big one for us. We don’t get a lot of coverage most of the time and then the Olympics come around and it’s massive, it’s much bigger compared to our world championships.

“So crazy stuff always happens at the Olympics in our sport, there are always crashes, always DQs. A saying I have is ‘the Olympics is a great leveller.’ So the favourites don’t always come away with the medals. The Olympics just turns it upside down.

“You have the people who will play it safe but from my experience you also have the people who are prepared to risk it.”

Gooch, who is Britain’s only ever medallist in short track clearly feels that it is those who can battle, who can overcome bad refereeing decisions, and who are the fastest that will triumph.

“In the same year I won my bronze medal I also finished a race in silver but was disqualified. I just went for it because I’d already won the bronze and I was there to win which meant taking some risks.

“It didn’t pay off that time and you see with Stephen Bradbury (1000m gold medallist in 2002 following a pile up), last man standing, the other guys were risking everything to win that gold medal and in our sport, more often than not, people take risks rather than play the safe game.

“With figure skating it’s more about your reputation, people judging you, you just stick to being clean and what you know, that’s probably better. In our sport it’s much more exciting in terms of people taking risks because they want that medal.”

So what next for Christie in the world of the short track?

There’s not much of a break, and the 2014 world championships commence next month, where Christie will look to clinch a victory to brush Sochi off as a distant nightmare.

She’ll be 27 for the next Olympics, and four more years of competition outside of the media glare of the Games will better adapt her frame of mind for the next games.

PyeongChang is the venue for the next Winter Olympics, and the home nation will have a massive advantage following the five medals their Korean ladies picked up on the short track.

With the sport ever growing in popularity worldwide, Christie may yet find that she may never have been a better opportunity to win gold than this chance that she had in Sochi.

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