It was nearly a family affair for Michel and Ronald Mulder on the gold- and silver-medal stands. Then countryman Jan Smeekens seemingly eclipsed both Mulder twins—right until a last-second timing correction gave Michel Mulder his first Olympic gold medal in the 500-meter speedskate on Monday.
Michel Mulder's 69.31-second overall time defeated Smeekens by just 0.01 seconds, in one of the closest and most thrilling events thus far in Sochi. Ronald Mulder came in third place at 69.46 seconds, giving the Netherlands all three medals in the shortest speedskating event.
|4||KOR||Tae Bum Mo||69.69||+0.38|
Michel Mulder's time was just barely a tenth of a second worse than the overall Olympic record, which was set at altitude. As noted on the NBC broadcast, the 27-year-old Dutchman had easily the strongest overall time at sea level in history.
The 500-meter event is the only speedskate with two different heats. A winner is decided by combining the first and second runs, with the skaters being reordered for the last heat to make for a more competitive atmosphere.
Smeekens, who finished sixth in the 500-meters four years ago, opened with a 34.59-second time to sit in first place following the first race. While that run surprised many and gave him the comfort of going in the last group, he held just a 0.04-second lead over Michel Mulder—an advantage that proved just a tenth too short.
The Dutch placed three inside the top six after the first heat, the other being Ronald Mulder. Japanese athletes Keiichiro Nagashima (34.79, third place) and Joji Kato (34.966, fifth place) also opened up the possibility that the podium would be dominated by a single country.
That said, both countries were acutely aware of South Korean Tae Bum Mo looming in the background. Mo's 34.84-second time during his first run was good for a fourth-place standing, but his 0.25-second deficit is easily attainable within the shortened confines of the 500-meter race. The 24-year-old South Korean was a surprise two-time medalist in Vancouver, capturing the 500-meter and 1,000-meter events.
No one came into Monday surprised by his rising star. Mo won each of the last two World Championships in the 500-meters and was selected by nearly every publication, including The Associated Press, as the overwhelming favorite.
In the end, Mo fell just shy as the Dutch charged triumphantly in the second heat. Ronald Mulder started off the stretch with a 34.49-second run, giving him the best single time of the entire competition and vaulting him shortly into first place. Mo and Michel Mulder went two pairs later in the penultimate run, with Mulder clinching the South Korean would not retain his gold by beating him head-to-head.
Paired with Nagashima for the final race, Smeekens seemingly captured gold. The initial timing gave Smeekens a slight advantage over his countryman, with the entire Sochi stands thinking he had won. However, with one slight adjustment, the entire course of the race changed, per Willie Cornblatt of NBC Olympics:
I'm so sorry, but Michel Mulder won gold it looks like, there was a timing correction— Willie Cornblatt (@WillieCornblatt) February 10, 2014
The Netherlands now has seven medals, tying Norway for the current overall high.
American star Shani Davis managed just a 24th-place finish, but he was not expected to medal in the 500-meter event. Davis, 31, is the two-time defending gold medalist in the 1,000-meters, with two additional silvers in the 1,500-meter event. As of the Journal Sentinel noted, Davis was considering sitting out the second leg of the 500-meters to save his legs but eventually decided to finish out the program.
As noted by Cornblatt, Monday was merely a tune-up:
And Shani finishes in fifth, not a surprise, just warming up for the middle distances #speedskating— Willie Cornblatt (@WillieCornblatt) February 10, 2014
Davis will be the great hope for the United States going forward. He's considered the overwhelming favorite for his third straight 1,000-meter victory, which would make him the first American male to win the same event three straight Olympics. As he explained to
"But there is something about going out there and having everything on the line," Davis said. "I'll be keeping in mind some of the sacrifices and generosity that people have had to get me where I am. I want to do my best not only for myself, but for them, and we'll win this race together."
In the 500-meters, the United States was almost entirely out of contention. Tucker Fredricks (26th) and Mitchell Whitmore (27th) had nondescript performances, while Brian Hansen withdrew rather than going on his second run. All four Americans are expected to perform better in later competitions.
When it comes to sprinting, though, it's all Netherlands all the time in Russia.
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