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Speedskating Dispute Puts Chill on Olympic Spirit

Sports: A rejected U.S. skater drops his claim of foul play, but another case rages on.

January 25, 2002|HELENE ELLIOTT and ROBIN FIELDS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

He claimed the purported plot was hatched a month ago at an ice rink in Kearns, Utah.

Allegedly, short track speedskating's budding U.S. superstar and his main challenger threw a race to help a pal win a spot on the Olympic team--snatching opportunity away from another skater they disliked. Or so the losing skater said.

On Thursday, an arbitrator dismissed those claims, finding that no rules were broken by either the skaters or U.S. Speedskating, which governs the sport. The Olympic roster remains intact. The displaced skater formally dropped his protest and, in return, one of his adversaries withdrew the defamation lawsuit he had filed in response.

But even in resolution, the case's ripples have spread beyond the tiny sphere of elite speedskating, exposing rivalries and cutthroat tactics familiar to athletes, but disillusioning to true believers in the Olympic promise of fair play.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 14, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Figure skating--A Jan. 25 story in Section A incorrectly reported that Tonya Harding orchestrated the attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan in 1994. Harding's husband, Jeff Gillooly, and three others admitted their guilt and maintained that Harding took part in planning the assault. Harding, who admitted only that she knew about the attack after it took place, pleaded guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution of a case.

There have always been bitter disputes over Olympic slots--the most high-profile, of course, being the attack orchestrated by figure skater Tonya Harding on rival Nancy Kerrigan in 1994.

But as the Winter Games in Salt Lake City approach, more of them than ever are finding their way into the public record--and, thus, into the public eye.

As a battery of attorneys saw the speedskating rhubarb to its end, an arbitrator was hearing testimony in a San Diego courtroom in a separate case filed by women's bobsledder Jen Davidson, who claims she was unjustly robbed of her chance to compete.

"Athletes are going to court about these disputes instead of just complaining and arguing," said David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian and author of "The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics 2002."

Ultimately, the speedskating case turned teammates into witnesses against each other at an already stressful time, rupturing the team's fabric, possibly for good, said Anita DeFrantz, the senior International Olympic Committee member from the U.S. and president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles.

"The psychic damage is almost inestimable to the athletes," she said. "I do believe our Olympic athletes are prepared at the start of competition, but the agony in between, the loss of sleep, the ups and downs, that's all part of it. You start second-guessing yourself and say things and then say, 'Did I really say that?' "

The speedskating controversy began at the Olympic trials, held in late December.

Short track is the younger, edgier sibling of long track speedskating, the more elegant art form of Olympic legends Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair.

In long track, two skaters compete at a time, staying in their lanes and racing the clock, not one other.

Short track, added to the Olympic roster in 1992, has more in common with Roller Derby: A pack of helmet-wearing skaters bull their way around a smaller, padded rink. Some jockeying is legal but the rules forbid pushing, obstructing, colliding or body contact while passing.

At 19, Apolo Ohno is the poster boy for short track, personifying its punky, rebellious image. Born in Seattle and raised mostly by his father, he won the 1999 world junior short track championship and became the youngest American ever to win a World Cup race that same year.

Ohno and his top competitor, the spiky-haired, peroxide blond Rusty Smith of Sunset Beach, had accumulated enough points to clinch spots on the six-member Olympic squad going into the final race. Tommy O'Hare, seen by some in the sport as abrasive and a bit of an outsider, had what he thought was a solid hold on sixth place. Ohno's close friend, Shani Davis, lagged behind.

O'Hare did not skate in the final group. Instead, he was watching as Davis beat out the more celebrated Ohno and Smith, grabbing enough points to nab the sixth, and final, Olympic slot.

O'Hare immediately accused Ohno and Smith of conspiring to fix the race, making strategic moves to help their friend Davis. Ohno admitted publicly that he had not gone all out, saying he was trying to avoid injury, but he denied he had broken any rules.

Smith filed a defamation lawsuit against O'Hare, claiming the accusation marred his reputation.

U.S. athletes can appeal the team-selection process twice. O'Hare took his case first to U.S. Speedskating and then, when that did not produce the resolution he sought, demanded a hearing before an officer from the American Arbitration Assn.

As the hearing date approached, material from sworn statements made by skaters Chris Needham, Adam Riedy and Chad Richards leaked out. They claimed to have overheard Ohno and Smith conspiring to ease up or aid Davis.

"It was clear to me that Apolo Ohno was not skating the race in order to win and that he skated the race to ensure that Shani Davis won," Needham said, according to a report published by the Denver Post.

Richards, who did not compete because of an injury, said he heard Smith tell Ohno just before the race: "If Shani gets in the lead with three laps to go, I won't pass him."

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