RICHMOND, British Columbia -- Former Olympic gold medal speedskater Bart Veldkamp of the Netherlands stood outside the Richmond Olympic Oval on Tuesday in a light drizzle that suited the national mood of astonishment and disbelief.
"It's insane," Veldkamp said, shaking his head. "You don't tell an athlete ..."
Holland's Sven Kramer was as certain a gold medalist in the 10,000 meters as any contestant in any event at these Games. The world-record holder had been on his way to an Olympic record with eight laps to skate, holding a steadily expanding lead of more than six seconds over Lee Seung-Hoon of South Korea. That's when Kramer's coach, Gerard Kemkers, called out "inner lane!"
In the space of that moment Kramer hesitated. His right skate flew over one of the pylons that mark the lanes as they head into each curve, but he dutifully -- and erroneously -- headed to the inside, then skated home in what would have been a comfortable winning time of 12:54.50.
But Kemkers had messed up. Kramer sailed over the finish believing he had won his second gold of the Games. "Maybe this was my best 10K ever," he would later say. "Every stroke was 100 percent." It was left to Kemkers to go up to Kramer and tell him he had been disqualified for crossing over into the wrong lane. A venue full of orange-clad Dutch, whose cheers Kramer had consumed like fuel, fell silent.
Veldkamp is right: You leave an athlete, especially one as natural as Kramer, to do what he has been trained to do. Anything else is lunacy.
"I was on my way to making the right decision," Kramer said later. "Right before the corner, I changed my decision. I changed my decision on the advice of my [coach]."
Kemkers was distraught afterward. "My world collapsed," he told Dutch reporters. "This is the worst moment of my career. Sven was right. I was wrong."
Until today the coach and his protege had collaborated on a magnificent four-year run, with Kramer setting three world records in the 10,000 since the Turin Olympics. With its 25 laps, the race is mind-numbingly long -- emphasis on the mind-numbingly.
"It's not only about your shape, your muscles and your body-feeling," said silver medalist Ivan Skobrev of Russia. "It's also about your head. Today he had huge pressure. I'm really so sorry for him. Today my medal should be bronze."
"Had Kramer not been disqualified, he would have had [the gold]," added the default gold medalist, Lee, who switched to long track in 2009 after failing to make his country's powerful short-track team. "I know I am lucky."
In Turin four years ago, Kramer had stumbled on a lane marker and fallen, costing the Dutch gold in the team pursuit. The finals in that event will take place on Saturday, and today's result promises to redouble the storyline in that race.
"Usually I don't want to blame anyone else, but this time I can't do anything else," Kramer said. "I wanted to go on the outer lane, then I thought he's probably right and went to the inner lane. I should have gone with my own thoughts, but I was brought into doubt."
At this point Kramer had yet another afterthought -- afterthoughts being the order of the day: "Maybe it's better to say that we did it wrong."