SALT LAKE CITY — THE Olympic Games don't award medals to athletes for acting with grace and forgiveness in the face of competitive disasters caused by their foes.
But the crowds know grace when they see it, which is why their respect for a onetime delinquent named Apolo Anton Ohno is deeper today than all the acclaim he's achieved as a 19-year-old speed-skating prodigy.
He might have become a bum. The road to oblivion was open to him. But if he's mended enough from the chaotic finish in his debut as an Olympian a few days ago, he's going back onto the ice tonight without bitterness or elaborate martyrdom, and he's going for a gold.
He was within milliseconds of it last weekend. His racing life is short-track skating, which bears an equal resemblance to a jail break and destruction derby at the carnival. In the congestion at the end, a skater bumped him from behind. He went down. Sliding on the ice with his thigh gouged by a skate, he finished second for silver.
His reaction to his bizarre loss of the gold must have won him instant admiration among the millions around the world who saw it. When the bodies had all been reassembled after the race, and nobody was seriously hurt except for the gash in Ohno's thigh, an astounded Australian named Steven Bradbury stood atop the podium. Ohno grabbed his hand and hugged him in congratulations, laughing about the crazy entanglement.
Here was a potential winner of four Olympic medals, muscular and daring, a Japanese-American kid from Seattle with one of those signature tufts of hair under his lower lip. He was so big in the avalanche of publicity preceding the games that he might have been the poster boy for the whole show. A few hours after he'd been accidentally whipsawed in the closing sprint of the 1,000-meter race, he was asked whether he was depressed by it. This is a macho kid, revved by the hunt. "No," he said, "my journey is not about winning medals. It's about being able to go to the starting line in the Olympics, experiencing it and performing my best. Things like that happen in this sport. It's what I live for. I was happy with my performance."
Happiness for Ohno today is any day on the ice, fighting for position on the turns, reveling in the competition. As an early teenager he ran with a bad crowd and drifted. His father, Yuki, is a Japanese immigrant and professional hair stylist who raged and cried over the kid's rebelliousness. Apolo bombed out of the American team four years ago because he was overweight, aimless, and pretty much without a clue about his life. Yuki left him alone in a remote north-woods cabin for a week to get his goals straight. The experience turned the kid's life around. So the father wept at the sight of the kid crawling to the finish after he'd been hammered to the ice, sticking the toe of his skate across the line and finishing second.
Athletes in the close-encounter maelstroms of pack racing get jostled all the time. Tough breaks are condition of life in competition. But Ohno is one of the rarest of athletes, an Olympian who is probably the best in the world in his sport. He could have wailed. But he didn't.
You will hear a lot more about this fellow. A kid who lives speed and competition is likely to find a way to keep turmoil in his life. Having clinched a place on the Olympic team a few weeks ago, he got nicked in one of the late qualifying races and fell back to third place. One of his closest friends won the race and qualified for the Olympic team, bumping another skater from the team. It looked to him like a calculated shuffle by Ohno. Charges of race-fixing were brought, but dismissed in arbitration.
Psychologists talk about people who are transformed by an event, made better and larger in how they face disappointment or grief. The Games-watching millions saw no prolonged grieving or tantrum from Ohno this week. Those who knew him a few years ago would have been surprised by his amiable acceptance of a calamity. The kids watching television - the adults watching television - saw a young athlete who could take a hard knock without demanding a jury. Athletes of that stripe are becoming an oddity.