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A bad day? Blame Ohno

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- The feared beast moves through the land, and as he passes, crops wither and die.

SALT LAKE CITY -- The feared beast moves through the land, and as he passes, crops wither and die.

He steps, and chasms open in the ground. The sky grows dark. Lightning flashes. Internet systems fail. Sirens sound in the distance. Doves cry.

Why, look, here comes the little troublemaker now.

Apolo Anton Ohno walks into the joint, and the weak-hearted cower. Insurance prices rise. Skaters fall. Controversy tags behind like a faithful puppy.

So this is what an international incident looks like. Ohno is 5 feet 7, 165 pounds, and if you had to, you could put him in your backpack. He has a golf divot of hair on his chin, long black hair and a look in his eyes that says, "Who? Me?"

And he is the most hated man in South Korea.

Kid Chaos was at it again Saturday night. A controversial Olympics finished in, what else, controversy. Ohno was disqualified in the semifinals of the men's 500-meter short-track speed skating for shoving Japan's Satoru Terao across the ice.

How else did you think it was going to end for Ohno, the powder keg of the Olympics? Of course, a judge was involved. Whenever Ohno skates, the rink turns into The People's Court. When short track holds its trials, the most important man in the place is the bailiff.

Ohno started slow and skated third for most of his semi. He attempted to pass Terao on the inside. Suddenly, Ohno's right elbow flared out, and Terao was spinning across the ice. And the South Koreans were looking up the translation of "poetic justice."

Odd. Ohno came into the night with the chance to become the second American, after Eric Heiden, to win four medals in one Olympics. Still, it felt a lot less like a run toward history than it did a street rumble. There was a lot of conjecture this place wasn't big enough for Ohno and South Korean Kim Dong-Sung.

Turns out, it didn't need to be. Kim was third in his semifinal, and Ohno was disqualified in his.

And a sellout crowd, with many wearing little fake beards that made them look like Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo cartoons (or for the older people among us, like Maynard in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), was disappointed. Perhaps by the lack of medals. Perhaps by the lack of mayhem.

It was strange, wasn't it, to see this little guy terrorize the Olympics. One competitor, Fabio Carta of Italy, suggested someone take a rifle to Ohno. The way Carta skates, however, he's likely to be out of range.

Not so long ago, when people were talking of Ohno winning four gold medals, he seemed like the perfect poster boy for these Games. And perhaps he still is. He's young. He's new wave. He's American. And he's controversial.

My goodness. Ohno is the perfect Olympian.

Things change. In one short week, Ohno has gone from the cover of Sports Illustrated to the cover of Police Gazette. He has been cut and criticized, sliced and spammed. He has swallowed his protest and endured South Korea's. He has fouled and been fouled.

And still, the turmoil swirls around him.

The first time Ohno raced, he was involved in a four-skater pileup that left him with a six-stitch gash and a silver medal. There were those who suggested if anyone were disqualified, it should have been Ohno.

The second time Ohno raced, he seemed to be second again. But a protest took the gold from the hands of Kim and put it into the hands of Ohno.

Talk about your unwanted e-mail. The next day, 16,000 of them were sent in protest, jamming the Olympic server. Some included death threats.

The FBI was called in. A Utah state policeman was brought in as a bodyguard. Although it should be admitted he did not skate fast enough to keep up.

All in the name of short track.

Go figure.

In South Korea, short-track skating is immensely more popular than it is here. Some would suggest the Koreans love short track the way we love luge. And so there were reports of angry fans rushing into the streets and frantically beseeching each other: "Doesn't short-track skating look awfully goofy?"

In the name of international brotherhood, the answer is yes, it does.

It is a roller-derby looking sport in which a skater goes from first to fourth to third to second to fourth to first, and hopefully, the blood on the ice doesn't turn out to be his. It is fast. It is frantic, and afterward, everyone argues a lot.

It is Ohno's sport. So of course, all of the trouble is Ohno's fault. It has to be. Who else are you going to blame?

Even when Kim was squeezed out in his semifinal by Canada's Marc Gagnon, you figured he would find some way to blame Ohno.

Just you watch. Before nightfall, Ohno will be accused of more wrongdoing. Turns out, he was the French figure skating judge. He's the guy who told Wayne Gretzky no one liked Canada.

He's the guy who went up to Russian Olympic Committee president Leonid Tyagachev, like Iago, and suggested Russia not put up with bad jobs anymore. He's the guy who suggested Ganbat Jargalanchuluun, the 15-year-old from Mongolia, buy a vowel.

It was his sad suggestion to include 'N Sync in the Closing Ceremony.

Blame Ohno.

Everyone else does.

Say this much for Ohno, however. He made you pay attention to this silly little sport. Maybe he made you happy. Maybe he made you angry. Maybe he made you talk.

Maybe in four years, he'll make you watch again.

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