RICHMOND, British Columbia — With a couple of laps to go in a race he was a lock to win, Sven Kramer sensed something might be wrong. He glanced toward his girlfriend in the stands, surely expecting a big smile.
Instead, her face was buried in her hands.
"I thought this is not good," Kramer said.
After crossing the line faster than anyone in the 10,000 meters, Kramer learned he had skated the final eight laps in the wrong lane Tuesday. The amateurish blunder could be blamed on his coach but, in the end, the greatest long-distance speedskater in the world paid for the mistake in the worst way.
No gold. No silver. No bronze. Nothing.
He flung away his orange-rimmed glasses in disgust after learning his coach, Gerard Kemkers, sent him to the wrong lane on a changeover with a certain victory in sight. The Dutchman was disqualified and Lee Seung-hoon of South Korea got the top step on the podium with a time that was more than 4 seconds slower than Kramer's.
"It is pretty hard now," Kramer said. "I was on my way to make the right decision and right before the corner, I changed my decision because of the advice from the (coach). At the end of the day, it is my responsibility. I am the skater on the ice. I have to do it."
Lee realized the mistake before Kramer even finished, hugging his coaches on the infield.
Not that he expected to win this way.
"I know I was really lucky to get this gold medal," said Lee, who only switched over from short track seven months ago.
As Kramer came across the line, he flipped down his hood and threw up his arms, believing he had won his second gold medal of the Vancouver Games. Then, as he was coasting along on the backstretch, Kemkers delivered the stunning news to his skater: Instead of a victory, he had been disqualified for failing to switch lanes on the 17th of 25 laps.
"I knew my world had just collapsed on me," Kemkers said.
Lee won with an Olympic-record time of 12 minutes, 58.55 seconds, breaking the mark of 12:58.92 set by Jochem Uytdehaage of the Netherlands at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
"I expected to be on the podium, but not for the gold. I could not have realized that this would have happened," said Lee, who won silver in the 5,000. "Sven Kramer is a great skater."
The silver went Ivan Skobrev of Russia (13:02.07), while defending Olympic champion Bob de Jong ended up with an unexpected bronze (13:06.73).
"Finally I beat Sven, but I don't want it this way," de Jong said. "When he was coming off the ice, I said I was sorry for him, but I didn't know at that moment what happened. He only said, 'Kemkers,' and I didn't know what that meant."
This was the second straight Olympics that a silly mistake cost Kramer a likely gold medal. At the 2006 Turin Games, the Dutchman stepped on a lane marker and fell during the semifinals of team pursuit, an event his country was overwhelmingly favored to win. Instead, the Dutch settled for bronze.
This particular race hurt even more because Kramer failed to abide by the most basic of rules.
"I really feel bad for Kramer," said Skobrev, who has a silver to go along with the bronze he won in the 5,000. "He is the best skater in the world. Sven made a mistake. That is his fault. My medal was bronze, but I have silver."
The Dutchman had already won the 5,000 handily, setting an Olympic record, and was on his way to being the fourth athlete from his speedskating-mad nation to sweep the two longest events on the men's program.
While the three medalists celebrated, Kramer sat alone on a bench along the front straightaway, trying to figure out what went wrong. Kemkers sat nearby, flashing an occasional glance at the skater he had cost gold.
Kramer did not look back.
"It is not supposed to happen and the responsibility is all mine," Kemkers said. "It all happened in a split second. It is a disastrous error. This is my absolute worst moment."
In long track speedskating, the competitors switch lanes each time they go down the backstretch to even up the distance they cover. A skater can begin making the crossover as soon he comes out of the first turn, and it must be completed by the time he reaches a cone at the far end of the back straightaway.
The mistake occurred after Kramer came off the first turn in the inside lane, which meant it was time for him to shift over to the outside lane by the end of the back straightaway.
As Kramer approached the cone that divides the two lanes, Kemkers motioned furiously for him to shift to the inside. Kramer knew he was supposed to go outside — he already was heading in that direction — but he made a split-second decision to abide by his coach's pleas.
Kramer actually went directly across the cone, one leg on each side of it, before hopping into the inside lane.
He didn't know it then, but his race was over.
"It is not just about how strong you are," Skobrev said, "it is about how good your head is in the race."
The crowd recognized something was wrong when Kramer and the other skater in the final pair, Skobrev, skated the rest of the race in the same lane. The Russian also knew something was wrong.
"I was sure I was right," Skobrev said.
Kemkers said he glanced away briefly to write on his timing board, then got confused when he looked back up at the skaters. He saw Kramer on the outer part of the unmarked stretched and thought he needed to get to the inside. Kemkers also thought he saw Skobrev coming off the inside lane at the far end of the oval, but the Russian had actually begun his changeover already.
"It fooled me," Kemkers said.
He started screaming toward a Russian coach when he saw Skobrev shift to the inside lane as he was supposed to do, following Kramer. When Kemkers realized what he had done, he buried his face in his hands.
While lane-change mistakes are highly rare, Kramer wasn't the first to mess up.
At the 2006 World Allround Championships in Calgary, American Chad Hedrick was trying to win the title in the final race when he took the wrong lane on the switchover. He realized his mistake quickly and swerved into the right lane, but he was waved off the track before finishing.
"If anybody understands how that feels, it's me. I lost a world championship in Calgary with the same type of thing," Hedrick said. "Whether you're the best skater or not, you still have to change lanes and stay focused.
"I sympathize, especially when you win by 4 seconds. It's tough."
Kramer's blunder overshadowed a brilliant performance by Lee, who shaved nearly 23 seconds off his personal best.
Lee actually lapped the other skater in his group, sweeping around Arjen van de Kieft of the Netherlands on the final turn. The Korean pumped his fists and bowed to the crowd, while van de Keift skated by, needing another lap to finish his race.
Lee switched to long track after failing to make his country's vaunted short track team. Even though short track has no individual event longer than 1,500 meters, Lee decided to focus on the longest events when he made the switch.
Now he's got a 10,000 gold — in a way he never could have imagined.1 comment on this story
Kramer certainly never saw it coming.
"It was probably my best 10-k ever," the crestfallen Dutchman said. "I hit it right and I kept going, but at the end this doesn't buy me anything. At the end of the day, it is my fault. You have to make the decision in a split second where you are going and I went inside."
After gathering himself, he jumped on his bike and rode hastily through the crowded lobby of the Richmond Olympic Oval.
Right out into the rain.