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Vancouver Olympics Preview: Men's Speed Skating

Sander CortenraadContributor IFebruary 9, 2010

KEARNS, UT - DECEMBER 27: Shani Davis competes in the 1000 meter event during the U.S. Speedskating Championships at the Utah Olympic Oval on December 27, 2009 in Kearns, Utah.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Speed skating and the Winter Olympics should almost be synonymous. It might lack the glamour of alpine skiing, the bombastic expressiveness of snowboarding or the sheer spectacle of seeing thirty biathletes power out of the starting gate together in the mass start, each with a 8-pound rifle slung over their back, but speed skating's excitement and history at the Olympics is second to no sport.

At the inaugural 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix five of the sixteen Gold Medals went to speed skaters, including the first ever winter champion, Lake Placid native Charles Jewtraw, in the 500 meter sprint. And history will continue to be made in Vancouver, where several athletes will be looking to make their mark in front of the world media; some for redemption, some for national pride and perhaps one or two to stake their claim to be considered among the all-time greats of the sport.

Twelve Golds will be awarded in the coming weeks, all at the brand new Olympic Oval in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond. Three nations will be expected to dominate the proceedings: the host-nation of Canada, the United States, and the Netherlands. Here is a rundown of all the six men's events, which athletes to pay special attention to, both the contenders and the pretenders, and which storylines cannot be missed.

The Contenders

Two men will be looking to dominate the proceedings in Vancouver, and the world has every expectation for them to do so. America's Shani Davis (pictured ) and Dutchman Sven Kramer have both elevated their craft to such perfection that choosing between them as greatest active speed skater is nearly impossible. Davis is the technician extraordinaire, with an aerodynamic posture and an unrivalled ability to attack curves in the ice rink and generate incredible speed. Kramer has phenomenal power and endurance and a fighter's mentality that has enabled him to come from behind and win races where he looked down and out. And most saliently for sports fans, both men come to Vancouver with a point to prove.

Kramer, then only 19 years old, shocked the Dutch audience when his fall during the semi-final race of the Team Pursuit at the 2006 Turin Olympics caused his country to lose the event where everyone was expecting a victory. Several days later he again disappointed when he finished 'only' seventh in the 10 kilometer race. Forgotten was the fact that this teenager had already secured a silver medal earlier in Turin, Kramer's first Olympics ended with bitter disappointment.

More disappointed than the Dutch fans however was young Kramer himself. Emerging from Turin stronger and wiser he has since gone on a tear in the sport, winning 13 Dutch national titles, setting six world records, and being crowned world champion a record nine times. Kramer is therefore the absolute favorite over the 5km and 10km event.

Davis goes to Vancouver looking to defend his title over 1'000m and to claim a new one over 1'500m. By all accounts Davis had an excellent '06, where he made history by becoming the first person of African descent to win an individual gold. However his Olympic experience was marred by a rather nasty spat between him and fellow American teammate Chad Hedrick, who accused him of pulling out of the Team Pursuit event, thereby ruining the US, and Hedrick's, chances of winning another gold medal (America ended up finishing 6th, without Davis).

The media picked up on this and Davis was branded as unpatriotic and a bad teammate. Davis had not pulled out of anything however. He had already announced that he would not be participating in the Team Pursuit, and moreover, changing his mind at the last minute would have forced the US team to deactivate someone already assigned to do the event, something Davis felt would've been poor form. This bad blood has remained, both between Hedrick and the US media, so much so that at a press conference organized in Vancouver by the American Olympic Committee last Sunday, Davis was the only member of the American skating delegation who wasn't there.

Like Kramer, Davis has used his Olympic disappointment to add fuel to his already formidable drive to win. Over his favored 1000 and 1500m distances he has lost more races by simply not appearing at the start than by not reaching the highest rung when he does appear. With seven world records and four world titles he has been consistently making a mockery of his competition in what used to be two of the most competitive distances in the sport. In international competition this year he is unbeaten over 1'000m, and only once beaten over 1'500m (his victor, incidentally, was Chad Hedrick).

The 5000m & 10000m

Does that mean that these two greats have no competition? Absolutely not. Although the greatest competition of both men will probably come from within their own country. Chief rival to Sven Kramer over the 10km event will be fellow Dutchman Bob de Jong. In his 4th Olympic Games De Jong will attempt to ward off Kramer and retain his Turin title over the longest distance. He is the only man to have even come close to Kramer over this distance in the last few year, and Kramer's last international defeat was the same race where De Jong won Olympic gold.

Over the 5km the list of competitors is longer, although it is again headed by De Jong, who nearly inflicted on Kramer his first defeat since 2007 earlier this season in Kramer's hometown of Heerenveen where the difference between first and second was a mere 0.09 fraction of a second. Other rivals include Italy's Enrico Fabris, Russia's Ivan Skobrev and Norway's young phenom Havard Bøkko, who has been lovingly nicknamed by his hometown fans as The Shadow for the number of times he has finished 2nd, to Sven Kramer.

Bøkko has the unenviable task of being the only serious gold medal candidate the Norway has to offer, and therefore all the hopes and aspirations of skating fans in the country with the greatest history in the sport. When the world championships came to Norway last year, King Harald V himself spent two days on the stands, watching; such is the importance of the sport in that country. Norwegian fans who still remember being wowed by Johann Olav Koss, and remember the names of greats like Hjalmar Andersen, Knut Johannesen, Ivar Ballangrud or Oscar Mathiesen will have all their attention, and the pressure that comes along with that, focused squarely on Bøkko. Bøkko’s pre-Olympic campaign has been troubled at best, with his last appearance in competition a month ago resulting in a nasty fall in a 500m race.

The 1000m & 1500m

Davis' rival over the 1000 & 1500m will be Chad Hedrick, who has recovered from a post-Turin slump an re-established himself among the sport's elite. Newly a father, Hedrick has recorded the best times of his career over those two distances this season, and is of course the last man to inflict defeat on Davis. While Hedrick is far from the technician that his teammate is, he does have an unmatched ability to fight through seemingly excruciating pain and consistently deliver great times.

Hedrick does have the tendency to skate against his direct opponent, rather than attempt to set the fastest possible time. This has in the past occasionally worked against him, but it has also produced some spectacular battles in the ice rink. If Davis and Hedrick would be matched together for any race, well, it would be a battle for the ages, especially since Hedrick has already announced that he wants to make these Olympics his swan's song. The moment the festivities in Vancouver end is the moment where Hedrick will bid farewell to the sport and go back to Texas to spend all his time with his wife and baby girl.

Another top rival for Davis will be 20-year old Trevor Marsicano, also of the USA. A devout Christian, who carries a Bible with him everywhere he goes, Marsicano is the US' proof that there will be life after Hedrick and Davis and he is the current world champion over 1000m, when he surprisingly beat, well, guess . Canada’s Denny Morrison, one of the few who can come close to rivaling Davis’ aggressive riding style, will also figure heavily into the events, and dark horses include Dutch specialists Stefan Groothuis, Simon Kuipers and Mark Tuitert, as well as South Koreans Tae-Bum Mo (one of this seasons’ revelations) and Kyou-Hyuk Lee (in his 5th Olympic Games), cannot be ignored.

The 500m

Which brings us to the final individual distance, the 500m sprint, which will figure to be the battle royale at the Richmond Oval. With seven or eight serious candidates, the World Cup season so far has produced some of the best competition ever seen, with no race being won by more than 0.20 of a second. The South Koreans will go in ever the ever-so-slight favorites, with the ‘Two Lees:’ Kang-Seok Lee and the aforementioned Kyou-Hyuk Lee having the best records, but the historically strong sprinting nation of Japan has plenty of challengers too, with Keiichiro Nagashima, Joji Kato and Yuya Oikawa chief among them. Tucker Fredricks will defend the Stars & Stripes (America having won the past two Olympic 500m’s), Finland’s Mika Poutala is a live underdog, and China’s hope for men’s gold rests with Fengtong Yu and Zhongqi Zhang.

But while he might belong to the list of absolute favorites, no one will have more sympathy going into the 500m than Jeremy Wotherspoon. The sympathetic Saskatchewan native has been one of the greatest ever competitors over 500m, but has never been crowned with Olympic gold. In Nagano, 1998, he won silver, but since then it has been only bad luck at the Olympics. Wotherspoon deserves gold, in what will likely be his last chance. If he wins, Wotherspoon has said he’ll retire and take up wine making, of all things. I hope it happens.

The Team Pursuit

The final event will be the Team Pursuit, where three-man teams from eight countries will compete in a direct elimination bracket. Chief favorite will be the Netherlands, powered by the diesel engine of Sven Kramer, who will hope to redeem the gold medal he ‘lost’ in Turin. Canada and to a lesser extent Italy each have a strong team, and the Norwegians and Americans will be dark horses.

But the Americans are merely dark horses only for one reason, the absence of Shani Davis. Haunted by ghosts of Olympics past, Davis has clearly and unambiguously stated he will not take part. With him, America would be clear co-favorites with the Dutch, without him, they’ll be fighting for bronze behind Canada. This will also deprive us of the only chance to see a fair fight between Davis and Kramer, with the approximately 3km Team Pursuit distance acting as a bridge between both men’s specialized distances. Unlike 2006 however, a Davis change of heart wouldn’t cost anyone their place in the American team. Let us hope for this change of heart, since a Davis, Hedrick, Marsicano team against Sven Kramer, Jan Blokhuijsen and Simon Kuipers for a gold medal would be most thrilling four minutes you’d ever see in any sport.

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