They always say the 500-meter short track is one of the more thrilling and unpredictable events in the Winter Olympics. Well, "unpredictable" and "thrilling" are two of the most mild adjectives one could use to describe Thursday's final in Sochi.
Jianrou Li captured the fourth straight gold medal for China in the 500 meters, skating through the finish line alone following a shocking crash on the first lap that took out each of her competitors.
Arianna Fontana of Italy received silver, and South Korea's Seung-Hi Park won bronze, but the story of the race was how the two competitors fell to the ice. Heading into the first corner, Great Britain's Elise Christie attempted to move her way into better position but went a little too far and caused a three-person pile with Park and Fontana.
Willie Cornblatt of NBC Olympics had a snapshot of what transpired:
The three-way spill left Li alone skating for her first Olympic medal. Knowing the situation at hand, she glided carefully and conservatively to finish the race in 45.263 seconds. While Christie crossed the finish line second, she was penalized and given a last-place finish. Fontana officially clocked in at 51.250 seconds, and Park at 54.207.
|Women's Speedskating 500-Meter Results|
For many, Thursday's final will be a disappointing finish to what is one of the higher-intensity Winter Olympic events. Skaters who moved through the heats on Monday had to race the quarterfinals, semifinals and medal race all on Thursday within about a two-hour span.
While these are world-class athletes who are used to the grind, you could see the frustration on three of the four skaters' faces.
Li's victory is China's second gold medal of these Games and third medal overall. The Chinese have now won this event more than a decade running, with three different competitors bringing home the gold.
Wang Meng, who won gold in Turin and Vancouver in this event, was forced to abdicate her throne after suffering a broken ankle in training. Meng's absence not only hurts her overall Olympic profile, but it left the Chinese scrambling for a star in an event they have dominated since her arrival on the national stage.
While they eventually found victory in Li, Kexin Fan's shocking failure to qualify for the final initially sent shock waves through the field. Fan, selected by the Associated Press as the gold-medal winner coming into Sochi, had turned in the best times in both the heat and quarterfinal runs.
However, as is often the case in short-track speedskating, one huge mistake forced her to go home empty-handed. Fan caught her own skate and tumbled to the ice, as Elise Christie of Great Britain crossed the finish line first to keep her country's hopes alive. Willie Cornblatt of NBC Olympics was one of many to express shock at the turn of events:
Christie, 23, came into these Games as something of a controversial figure. Not only is she one of the fastest skaters in the world, but she's unique as a well-known talker on the ice. Her intensity and confidence radiates throughout her skate, and she readily admitted to Ollie Williams of BBC Sport she uses her confidence to psych out opponents:
A lot of people just sit there in the zone, and I generally will go up and talk to them. I think that makes them think I'm not very nervous. 'Oh God, she's fine.' And it's because I am fine. I mean, what's going to happen on the ice is going to happen. I can't do much about it. So I just chat to them about other stuff.
While it's unclear whether Christie made a tactical error or was just nervous, it's safe to say she had a ton of pressure mounting. Great Britain has just one speed-skating medal in history, a bronze, and Christie was seen as the great hope to alter that trajectory. Instead, she will likely leave Sochi wondering what could have been had she not made such a critical error.
A similar feeling will hit home with Fontana and Park. The 21-year-old South Korean was picked second by the AP and saw a gold medal flash before her eyes when Fan went down in the semis. Fontana, who won bronze in 2010, improved to a silver four years later but cannot be happy her chance at gold was taken away.
Fontana will have the best chance of these women to earn an additional medal going forward. She was selected by the AP as the silver-medal favorite in the ladies' 1,000 meters, which will get underway with qualification on Tuesday. Shim Suk-Hee of South Korea is considered the overwhelming favorite in both the 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters.
Li was the overall world champion in 2012 and captured the 1,500 meters in Shanghai, so she's also far from finished. But for now, Li will merely get to bask in her good fortune and gold medal.