It is the nature of speed skating that the difference in the Olympic fortunes of Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen amounted to a couple of hundredths of a second—maybe the width of a skate or the wavelength of a vibe, good or bad. Blair's skates glided smoothly, but something seemed to drag imperceptibly at Jansen's. Whether it was misfortune or apprehension or just lousy karma, the result was that while Blair had added gold to gold, Jansen only added disappointment to tragedy.
Last Friday afternoon on the mist-covered Olympic oval, Blair triumphed over Ye Qiaobo of China in the women's 1,000 meters by just .02 of a second, a margin difficult to grasp yet significant enough to lift Blair into Olympic lore. It was Blair's third gold medal in two Olympics and her fourth medal overall.
A day later a very different sort of destiny seemed to tug at Jansen. The world-record holder at 500 meters but also fate's toy, Jansen failed to medal Saturday in the men's 500, which was supposed to have been his strongest event. Four years of waiting for Olympic redemption were compressed into 37.46 seconds, which ultimately proved to be a very ordinary I time. As he watched from the sidelines, Jansen, who had skated in the day's second pairing, fell slowly from first place to second to third and, finally, to fourth as three skaters eclipsed his time and his hopes for a medal.
What went wrong? When the starting gun went off, Jansen seemed to freeze, and his split for the first 100 meters was a heavy-legged 9.90. He also hesitated in the final turn, and as he crossed the finish line, he checked his clocking and grimaced, knowing that his time would simply not be good enough. "I was surprised when I looked at the clock that it was that slow," Jansen said later.
February 24, 1992
Jansen's time was surpassed by two Japanese skaters who were genuine surprises: the virtually unknown Junichi Inoue (37.26) and the only slightly better known Toshiyuki Kuroiwa (37.18). And defending Olympic champion Uwe-Jens Mey of Germany obliterated Jansen's performance with a 37.14 to win the gold. Said Jansen, "I'm surprised more than anything." His mother, Gerry, was stoic, saying that what was most important to the Jansen clan was not that Dan medal but that he stand up throughout the race.
She did not have to explain; the world knew well the unhappy story. Jansen's 500 in Albertville came one day after a terrible anniversary: On Feb. 14, 1988, six hours before he was in compete in the 500 in the Winter Games in Calgary, Dan learned that his sister Jane had died after a long battle with leukemia. In both the 500 and the 1,000, Dan fell and failed to finish. The day before these '92 Games began, Dan assured the hordes of questioners that he had put the sorrow of Calgary behind him and that his aim in Albertville was simply to enjoy himself. "I've heard a lot of 'You should have won then, so you'll win now.' It's not fair," he said. "I'm just thankful to be in this position. I came here wanting to enjoy the whole experience. I don't have anything to prove to anybody." A sympathetic Blair said, "It's time to go on. Dan needs to go on; we all need to go on."
Still, Jansen, who was participating in his third Winter Games, expected to collect his first Olympic medal—if not a gold. He and Mey had dueled to one-two finishes throughout this season, with no one else able to beat them. And Jansen had set his world record of 36.41 in Davos, Switzerland, just three weeks before arriving in France. He claimed to be confident. "I had the feeling I was going to come out with the gold or silver," Jansen said after the 500.
But nothing seemed to move in the right way for him. He awoke three days before the race with a mysterious muscle ailment in his neck and was unable to turn his head to the right or left; the condition lasted nearly 48 hours. On the afternoon of the 500, a warm rainstorm descended on Albertville, turning the ice soft. Jansen professed to be relaxed before the race. "I had no sense of trouble," he said later. But he knew the conditions did not favor his long power stride, which works best when he can glide over a hard surface; instead, they worked in favor of skaters with short, quick strides, who don't depend as much on gliding.
The condition of the track helped explain the leapfrogging over Jansen by the quick-footed Japanese skaters. Jansen's time held first place for only a matter of minutes, until Inoue crossed the finish line in the next pairing. Jansen, warming down on the outer track, turned and stared at the scoreboard for a long moment, hands on his hips. He shook his head and skated on. Then came Mey, his .32 margin over Jansen a relative eternity by the standards of speed skating. Jansen knew better than anyone that his time was unimpressive "Frankly, I'm surprised I finished fourth," he said afterward. His only real comfort came in the knowledge that he would have another chance at a medal in Tuesday's 1,000-meter race.
Blair's 1,000 was skated in front of 46 friends and family members wearing Team Blair uniforms, and her victory added to the gold she had won in the 500 four days earlier; thus she remained undefeated in the two events this season. She completed her current Olympics with one slight disappointment: when she did not medal in the 1,500 meters, finishing 21st last Wednesday after U.S. coach Peter Mueller signaled her to slow down when it became clear that she could not win.
Her second gold, in the 1,000, didn't come easily; Blair looked uncertain about her fate as she crossed the finish line in 1:21.90. She also looked exhausted as she glided around the oval with her hands on her knees. There were no high fives or raised arms, and she offered only a brief wave to the crowd. She then sat down on a bench near the starting line to watch the remainder of the competition, especially the pairing of Monique Garbrecht of Germany and Ye, the silver medalist in the 500, whose Olympics here have helped erase the shame of 1988, when she was banned from Calgary for testing positive for steroid use.
Ye and Garbrecht skated neck and neck throughout their run, and Blair glanced alternately at them and at the clock. When Ye's time, a measly .02 off Blair's pace, flashed across the board, followed by Garbrecht's bronze-medal clocking of 1:22.10. Blair still did not react. Said Blair later. "I'm relieved."
That seemed to be the common emotion around the skating oval, the understandable reaction after the enormous weight of Olympic pressure has lifted, win or lose. After his performance Jansen, too, said, "I'm relieved it's over." But, as these two U.S. skaters showed, the face of relief can take more than one form.