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WINTER OLYMPICS : Speed Skating : U.S. Shows Strength, but Medal, Record Go to Sweden's Gustafson

February 18, 1988|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

CALGARY, Canada — The way things have been going for the United States speed skating team, things turned out pretty well Wednesday. It didn't win a medal in the men's 5,000-meter race, but no one filed a lawsuit either.

The team came really close to both. Eric Flaim led a surprisingly strong U.S. performance that saw three skaters place in the top 10 when he wound up with a fourth-place finish, just missing a bronze medal.

Now for the legal news: As for a lawsuit, that may happen any time now, possibly as early as tonight if Erik Henriksen doesn't race the 1,000 meters, which he apparently won't.

U.S. Coach Mike Crowe and team manager Jack Byrne plan to start Dan Jansen, Nick Thometz, Flaim and Tom Cushman in the race, but not Henriksen, who lost two appeals to race and announced he will file a $1-million lawsuit against the U.S. speed skating association because he was bypassed in favor of Cushman.

"The only way Tom Cushman should get the 1,000 is if all of us got the Hong Kong flu," said Henriksen, U.S. team captain.

So much for team unity. But after the 5,000 meters, which was won by Sweden's Tomas Gustafson, who broke Eric Heiden's Olympic record by nearly 18 seconds, the U.S. trio thinks it might have improved the mood of the divided-we-skate team a little bit.

"Most of the guys were cheering us on," said Mark Greenwald, who finished ninth. Notice he said "most."

Teammate Dave Silk finished sixth and said he had noticed a slight warming trend occurring among his teammates.

"I think all three of us helped lift the team spirits," Silk said. "It's kind of nice to have a positive attitude for once."

Even before the U.S. skaters put one skate on the track for the 5,000, it was evident they were a changed team. They wore new uniforms.

Gone were the normal blue and red colors, and in their place were uniforms of gray and pink.

It was a new look. Maybe not a new, pretty look, but a new look nonetheless. What is it called?

"It's called the fast look," Flaim said.

Pink and gray aren't your usual national colors, but the skaters inside those uniforms didn't produce the usual U.S. 5,000-meter performances either.

Four years ago at Sarajevo, the highest U.S. finish in the 5,000 was 12th place. Flaim, Silk and Greenwald all skated personal best times, and although they weren't fast enough to win a medal, they didn't complain.

"I'm a little disappointed, but I did a lot better than people expected me to do," Flaim said. "Before today, nobody expected any of us to do anything."

About the only thing anyone has expected U.S. speed skaters to do is sue. Crowe chose to believe that the way the Americans skated Wednesday is an indication that the team has put its problems on ice on ice.

"We've talked about the problems we've had," Crowe said. "We've had a lot of questions about that. But these three guys didn't think about them.

"They did a real good job. I think the other members of the team now realize what can happen if they focus on the race and don't think about everything else."

Flaim was in the eighth pair. He skated 12 1/2 laps in 6:49.09, which put him in third place. Then there was a 20-minute delay for the ice to be resurfaced before Gustafson took the ice.

The 1984 gold medalist in 5,000 meters, Gustafson knew he had to beat the Netherlands' Leo Visser if he were to repeat. And Flaim knew that if Gustafson did that, the bronze would be gone.

Flaim had the bronze medal for about 30 minutes. He cooled down and skated in the practice lane during Gustafson's race.

"I knew Tomas would skate a really good race," Flaim said. "At one point, I was wondering if I would get it. His last 100 meters, when he came out of the last turn, he really accelerated the whole way. But I did my best. I can't change the way anybody else skates."

Gustafson's last lap was faster than anyone else. He went around the Olympic Oval track in 32.40 seconds and completed his race with a time of 6:44.53. Visser won the silver medal in 6:44.98.

The Netherlands' Gerard Kemkers took the bronze by beating Flaim's time by 1.17 seconds.

Flaim's time was 6:47.09, nearly 10 seconds faster than his previous best.

"I've got to be happy with that," he said.

Somebody who wasn't happy was world record-holder Geir Karlstad of Norway, who finished seventh. Karlstad has been bothered by a stomach disorder, but he didn't use that as an excuse.

"Maybe I have been a little sick, but I feel good," Karlstad said. "Maybe it was more I skated a bad race."

Karlstad was still 1 of 25 skaters who broke Heiden's record. So far, it's been a bad week for Heiden. Twenty-seven skaters broke his 500-meter Olympic record Sunday night.

Gustafson won the 5,000-meter gold medal at Sarajevo when he skated in the first pair. He didn't think his time would hold up then, so he went over to watch the figure skating competition.

During his last lap Wednesday, the public address announcer told the crowd that Gustafson had a chance at the silver or bronze.

"He didn't know what he was talking about," Gustafson said and laughed. "I've never had this much confidence in my skating career. I've been riding a good wave.

"How do you describe happiness? I have to write a poem."

That's one way to attract attention in speed skating these days. Either that or hire a lawyer.

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