Why Apolo Ohno Is One Of The Greatest

Matt FloydContributor IMarch 1, 2010

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 26:  Bronze medalist Apolo Anton Ohno of the United States celebrates after the Men's 5000m Relay Short Track Speed Skating Final on day 15 of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics at Pacific Coliseum on February 26, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

In the past Vancouver Olympics, Apolo Anton Ohno, arguably one of the faces of the United States team, won three medals (one silver, two bronze) to become the most decorated American speed skater of all time.  And to the common mind, there is only one reason why he can't be classified among the likes of Eric Heiden, Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz, Bonnie Blair, and Carl Lewis: only two of Ohno's eight Olympic medals are gold.

However, we must look into one aspect that, perhaps, can enlighten the common man to the fact that Ohno can be categorized with the greats.  Why?  Because he competes in a sport that is about as volatile and unpredictable as an oil fire during a drought.

To elaborate, let's delve deeper into all of Ohno's individual races.

In 2002, in Ohno's first race, the 1000m, a daring pass put Ohno in the front with only one lap to go, and, heading into the final turn, a body length ahead of competitors, Olympic gold, in his first Olympic event of his career, was all but guaranteed, right?

Not in short track.

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A collision subsequently took out Ahn Hyun Soo, Li Jiajin, and Mathieu Turcotte.  Soo slid into Ohno, taking him out as well.  Ohno managed to crawl to the finish line in silver medal position, but it wasn't gold.

Ohno's first gold came in the 1500m, when Korea's Kim Dong-Sung, who crossed the line first, was disqualified for cross-tracking (a.k.a. moving in front of Ohno when he was trying to pass).  Men have debated to this day as to whether the disqualification was just or not, as pushing and shoving are a common thread in short track, but in remains to be said that if that race had been, say the 1500m in speed skating, Ohno might've been able to move ahead of Kim Dong-Sung without any pushing or shoving, and might've won without any controversy.

Ohno's last two events in Salt Like City didn't go so well, as teammate Rusty Smith clipped a lane marker and fell in the relay with 26 laps to go, and Ohno himself was disqualified for colliding with Japan's Satoru Terao in the semifinals of the 500m.  In speed skating, there are no lane markers, and there are no collisions.  In speed skating, Ohno might've won four golds on pure speed, maybe.  The 1500m might've still gone to Kim Dong-Sung.

Let's move to 2006.  Ohno won bronze in the 1000m, behind Ahn Hyun Soo of Korea, who gold.  Now, most would say that the race was clean, that Ohno was simply beat in that race by the faster skater.  However, it will never be confirmed as to whether or not the two Koreans, Hyun Soo and teammate Lee Ho-Suk, played a team race and ganged up on Ohno, a feat that would be impossible in normal speed skating.

Ohno was later eliminated in the semifinal of the 1500m for simply slipping.  Now that is something that could've happened in speed skating, and something like that cannot be defended.  Ohno simply lost.

And in the 500m, Ohno simply won.  In what he dubbed the "perfect race," Ohno blasted out of the start block and led from wire-to-wire in his first non-controversial Olympic gold.  No one can argue it.  No one can legitimately protest it.  When an athlete is perfection, he is going to win.

Ohno later powered his team to bronze in the 5000m relay, moving past Italy's Nicolai Rodriguez to claim a legitimate bronze, behind the winning Korean team and Canada, who won the silver.  All in all, most, if not all, if one believes the 1000m to be a non-team race, of Ohno's races and medals in 2006 were non-controversial.

In 2010, Ohno formed himself into the fittest, quickest athlete he could possibly be.  It showed, as Ohno's ability to pass other skaters was definitely improved.  However, the controversy from 2002 somewhat re-emerged, almost right off the bat.

After zooming through the quaters and semis of the 1500m, Ohno found himself in fourth entering the final turn.  But then Korea's Lee Ho-Suk and Sung Si-Bak wiped out.  Two of Korea's three premier skaters collided with each other on the final turn and Ohno slid into second place behind winner Lee Jung-Su.

Some would call this event simply karma, giving Ohno redemption from the collision that stole gold from him in 2002, or, if you believe the accusations, karma for Korea's supposed team play in the 1000m in 2006.  Korea, outraged, claimed that Ohno's silver was unworthy, but take this into account: If Korea was playing team play like they perhaps did in the 1000m of 2006, something impossible to do in speed skating or so, that Ohno, who tried to pass Jung-Su for gold but within moments was moved to fourth, could've won without controversy.  Still, Jung-Su did lead almost the entire race, so...

In the 1000m, with 2 1/2 laps to go, Ohno stood in second behind Charles Hamelin and believed that "the race was mine."  However, the subtle hand of Francois Hamelin (who shouldn't have even been in the final, as he was not in qualifying position when J.R. Celski collided with him in the semifinal) subtly "moved" Apolo off his game, and his slip moved him into fifth.  Only expert passing skills enabled Ohno to claim the bronze.  Again, if Francois Hamelin hadn't been there, Ohno proably would've won.

In the 500m, Ohno, who averted disaster in both in the quarters and semis but as such started in not the best of lanes, had little chance of winning the final or beating Charles Hamelin, who led wire-to-wire, starting in lane one, but did not deserve to be disqualified.  Yes, if the sport was like speed skating more, Ohno probably would've gotten no more than bronze.  But still, if not for the accidents in the quarters and semis, Ohno might've gotten a better lane draw and thus a better chance of actually winning.

The same goes for the 5000m relay.  Korea and Canada led throughout the Race, and the United States won, and deserved, the bronze.

Therefore, going back through Apolo's performances, let's see what he probably would've won without the volatility of the sport.

2002 Winter Olympic Games

1000m: Gold (no collision); 1500m: Gold or silver (would he have passed Dong-Sung); 500m: Unknown (but would've been in final without collision); 5000m relay: Unknown (but maybe wouldn't have fallen)

2006 Winter Olympic Games

1000m: Bronze or higher (if no team play); 1500m: Nothing (slipped on his own); 500m: Gold (he win it legitimately); 5000m relay: Bronze (won it legitimately)

2010 Winter Olympic Games

1000m: Gold (no Francois Hamelin); 1500m: Unknown (would he have passed Jung-Su or gold, or have retained silver); 500m: Bronze (he would've passed Tremblay, but not Hamelin); 5000m relay: Bronze (won it legitimately)

Therefore, without the volatility, perhaps Ohno could've had:

Gold: 3 to 5, Silver: 1 to 3, Bronze: 3 to 5, Unknown: 3

And the biggest part, the largest argument that Ohno should be ranked among the greatest of all time, is the simple truth that in a sport that is as volatile and unpredictable as an oil fire during a drought, has been in contention in almost every Olympic race he has participated in, and the fact in some of the cases where he wasn't, it wasn't even his fault.  With this in mind, one should be able to conclude that Apolo should be ranked among the greats.