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Ohno shines as true Olympic hero

By Brad Rock
Deseret News sports columnist

Logo       Apolo Anton Ohno wrapped up his first Olympic experience in a way few could have expected — even those accustomed to the rough-and-tumble world of short-track speedskating. His dream of winning four medals in the Games was cut in half.
      There was the silver medal in the 1,000 and a gold in the 1,500-meter races. They should accessorize his wardrobe nicely. But a medals haul? Not quite.
      Saturday was as bad as it gets for anyone named Apolo. His last chance to add to his medals count came in the 500-meter and the 5,000-meter relay races. What happened could qualify as either a small disaster or a large disappointment. He was disqualified in the semifinal round of the 500 meters for impeding another skater. When the relay arrived, teammate Rusty Smith hit a block with 27 laps remaining, dropping the Americans into fourth place and out of medal contention.
      With his Olympic experience over, it's a temptation to assume he would blame the officials, an opponent, or take the route several other athletes have taken: whine.
      "How disappointed?" he said. "Not disappointed at all. I mean, I got a silver and a gold, I'm 19, my first Olympics, so I'm not disappointed at all."
      Yeah, but what about the disqualification? That's gotta hurt.
      That's gotta make you want to blame someone.
      Asked if he thought it was a good call by the official, he replied, "I think so. Maybe I got a little too anxious."
      He did allow the Japanese opponent he impeded may have been about to fall anyway. Even so, Ohno concluded, "That being said, it was definitely a fair call."
      So what's up with the Eagle Scout routine? Where is the rebellious, troubled, dangerous Apolo we have all heard about?
      Those days may still be part of him, but part of his past. They're now working for him, not against. Now he's the Apolo his single-parent father wanted him to be, less cocky than he should be, even self-deprecating at times.
      The kind of Olympian who will surely make a gazillion dollars on endorsement deals.
      Ohno is a perfect star for his time: young, unpredictable, with a slightly chancy air. He made some bad choices as a teenager, we know that much. But he's sketchy on the details. That just adds to the aura of mystery.
      He wears a diamond stud in his ear, a soul patch on his chin.
      Dick Button, he's not.
      His blades are gold, his boots a flashing silver.
      All the better to draw the attention of the media.
      Americans are used to their Olympic heroes being the fresh-scrubbed, clean-faced variety, like Dan Jansen, Bonnie Blair and Eric Heiden. They love their Picabo Streets, Peggy Flemings and Dorothy Hamills, too. Ohno is different. By his own admission, he has walked the line between good and evil as a teen, saved from a problematic life by his father's insistence.
      But his murky past and edgy style actually helped his career. They set him apart from the other picture-perfect Olympians. He's no childish, giggling Sarah Hughes — which might even be a good thing.
      In these Winter Games, though, Ohno has been surprisingly appealing, thanks to his composure and maturity. He set the tone on the first night he competed, when he crashed with a Korean skater in the 1,000 meters, after leading down the stretch. He ended up crawling across the finish line to win the silver medal.
      But unlike several other athletes in these Games, he didn't protest the outcome.
      "This is the sport that I train for," he shrugged.
      At the same time, he was equally cool about winning the gold medal several days later in the 1,500 meters. That time, a Korean skater finished ahead but was disqualified for crosstracking. While the Korean threw down a flag and complained vehemently, Ohno again took it philosophically. He didn't even dignify accusations of play-acting to get the attention of the referee.
      "I was completely thrilled with the silver medal in the 1,000 and in the 1,500, I was happy to walk away with the gold," he said.
      All in all, he took everything that happened to him in stride.
      "I was very, very pleased," he said on his last night of the Olympics.
      Surely, so was his father.

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February 24, 2002

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