When you compete, there are winners and losers. The Winter Olympics are no exception and the human interest stories that NBC so aptly intertwines with the gravity-defying and awe-inspiring accomplishments of the athletes are sure to pull at the heartstrings. Whether it is the death of a parent, a paralyzing fall, or an unfortunate injury that impedes the performance of the athlete, our emotions are affected when we see these young folks dedicate their lives in the pursuit of excellence.
As we watch them compete, we root for our favorites and we share vicariously in their success, or lack thereof. We sympathize with the underdog and we revel in the glow of the winners. We are puzzled by the decisions of judges and we are stunned by the missteps of our heroes.
But we understand that in all these competitive events, it is the young person “in the moment” who is giving it their best, in the hopes of culminating 4 years of preparation and training with a coveted Olympic Medal. The athlete goes into the event ready to prove their mettle and live up to their “favorite” status. Sometimes they succeed; sometimes they are eclipsed by someone else. But they have given it their best and are proud of what they’ve done.
Except Sven Kramer. Not much of the American audience has seen or grasped the sheer terror, frustration, and disillusion of this 23-year old speed skater from the Netherlands. He is the Olympic Champion on the 5K speed skate, setting a rare new Olympic record on ice that is considered slow by international standards. He was the undisputed favorite for the 10K event held yesterday. He had won every 10K event he competed in since the Turin Olympics. He is the World Record holder on that distance and he was uninjured and unafraid. He started his 10K pursuit yesterday in the last pairing, knowing that the surprising Lee Seung-Hoo from Korea had previously broken the Olympic Record with a gutsy and inspiring race. And all who watched live or online were wondering, is Sven up to the challenge?
He was, but his coach wasn’t. About half-way through the race, while Sven was leading by a margin of over 5 seconds, his coach observed Sven going to the wrong lane during the change. Or so he thought in what must have been a moment of panic for him. In a split-second decision, the coach broke habit and directed Sven to the inside lane. Sven followed the unanticipated directive and finished the race in first place, with a new Olympic Record. But he came to realize in the latter laps of the contest that something had gone wrong. His girlfriend in the stands had her eyes covered. The stadium was quiet, where the Dutch are notoriously supportive of their skaters. He knew and so did his coach. Four years of work, one chance for gold and eternal 10K glory; all gone because of a coaches’ mistake.
Who is to blame? No one, of course. But when it comes to worst moments in sports, this has to be right up there.
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