Kramer Takes Gold, Lee Dreams In Speed Skating

Sander CortenraadContributor IFebruary 13, 2010

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 13:  (L-R) Seung-Hoon Lee of South Korea, Sven Kramer of Netherlands and Ivan Skobrev of Russia celebarte after the men's 5000 m speed skating held at the Whistler Medals Plaza on day 2 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at Richmond Olympic Oval on February 13, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

If you had asked everyone who knows anything about speed skating one year ago to draw up a list of who would stand on the 5 km podium today, no-one would have gotten it right.

Dutchman Sven Kramer took the gold, in an Olympic Record time of 6m 14.60s, which most experts would have correctly predicted.

But that's where every prediction would have stranded, since silver was taken by the unlikeliest of challengers, Seung-Hoon Lee of South Korea and bronze by Ivan Skobrev of Russia.

Kramer did exactly what the fanatical Dutch skating fans, and more importantly Kramer himself, expected of him.Losing was not an option for the 23-year old, having won silver in Turin, and being the three-time defending world champion over the distance.

But under the watchful eye of Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and several thousand orange clad skating fans, he fulfilled all expectations.

Overcome by emotion following his win, the usually composed Kramer sprinted across ice, climbed over the barriers protecting the televisions crews and, with tears in his eyes jumped into the stands to hug his parents and girlfriend (Naomi van As, an Olympic champion in field hockey). While the official medal ceremony isn't until tomorrow, the many Dutch fans broke out in an impromptu rendition of the national anthem. Kramer has now won all there is to be won in the sport. At 23, his career seems remarkably complete.

The conditions were horrible, with high air pressure and humidity caused by the rain outside leading to a rash of disappointing times to start the evening. Halfway through the race the leader was Jan Blokhuijsen, in a thoroughly unimpressive 6m 26s.

But following a break and an some additional work to the ice better contenders appeared. France's Alexis Contin was the first to launch a serious assult on the medal places when he rode a strong, stable race to a 6m 19s time, eventually good for 6th.

Immediately following Contin, Kramer took to the ice, first among the pre-race favorites. Setting off at a furious pace, Kramer held his speed well throughout the middle part of the race, before struggling through the last two laps, fighting against pain like he rarely is forced to do. So far, it was almost textbook, but that's when the skating world went topsy-turvy.

In the next race, Olympic veteran Bob de Jong (who will defend his gold over the longest distance, the 10kms, later in the games) matched up with 21-year old Seoul native Seung-Hoon Lee.

The pair figured to contain one bona fide medalist, and one also-ran. But reality proved stranger than fiction when halfway through the race de Jong, former Olympic and World champion, accelerated in an attempt to try to claim gold.

Lee countered and ended up proving the far stronger man, speeding up through every of the final four laps, finishing in 6m 16.95s with de Jong meekly 3 seconds behind.

Kramer could be seen biting his nails and holding his head in disgust, because if Lee could come within 3 seconds of beating him, one of his more established European rivals certainly could top him. But in the final two pairs, all Kramer's others rivals failed, not just in topping Kramer, but also in topping Lee's time. Ivan Skobrev came closest, setting off at a pace similar to Kramer, but faded late, ending up just over one second behind the young Korean, good enough for third.

Seung-Hoon Lee is a name likely familiar to no-one, even the most rabid skating fans in the world. There is a pretty good reason for that, given that he only took up long-track speed skating last September.

Before that he was one of the brightest prospects that Korea had in short-track speed skating, where he was a former champion over the longest 3km individual distance, and had finished 4th in the Overall World Cup.

Lee's dreams were to prove a foil for American legend Anton Apollo Ohno during these Vancouver Olympics. But fate struck for him at the Korean Olympic trials last year, when he surprisingly failed to qualify for a single distance.

Short tracking is incredibly popular in South Korea, whereas the long-track variety occupies, at best, a niche position in the general awareness.

Not willing to give up on his Olympic dreams, Lee converted, and started schlepping his way across Europe and North America, the heartland of his new sport.

Having identified the 5km as his target distance, Lee started slowly (finishing 16 seconds behind Kramer in a November meet in Berlin) but booked rapid improvement. By mid-December he was slowly evolving into a serious contender, most notably finishing fifth in Calgary, now only 5 seconds behind the Dutchman. Now, in February he has closed the distance even further, and beat all other pretenders to boot.

To say that "the sky is the limit" for someone's potential in a sport is a horrible cliche, and more often than not it is also hyperbole. But how can you say anything else when a four-month old rookie to a sport captures Olympic silver, being beat only by a man considered to be 'unbeatable'.

All of Lee's dreaming and hard work has paid off, and if he decides to stick to his new sport, rather than return to his old one, he could turn into a real force.


Tomorrow: Ladies' 3km

The Richmond Olympic Oval will tomorrow host the women, where the Czech Republic's Martina Sablikova will be the favorite going in. Sablikova is hard to beat over the 3km if she has good form, but for Sablikova that is often hard to find.

The Canadian women will be headed by Kristy Groves and Clara Hughes, although it neither's favorite distance. Germany, a traditional powerhouse in women's skating will look to 21-year old revelation Stephanie Beckert, who has beaten Sablikova already this season.

The Dutch, despite having the defending gold and silver medalists over this distance, occupy at best a dark horse spot. 2006 Champ Ireen Wust has proved much better over 1'500m so far this season, while Renate Groenewold has struggled mightily with injuries and bad form and only qualified for this distance by the skin of her teeth.

Norway's Maren Haugli, Japan's Masako Hozumi and Germany's Daniela Anschutz might contend for bronze.