No worries about speeding tickets for Bonnie Blair - at least on the ice

The police department in Champaign, Ill., loves it when Bonnie Blair speeds. Several members gathered in front of a large-screen TV the other night just to watch her go, and no one was disappointed after their heroine skated faster than any woman had ever done - and in the Olympics to boot. Getting off to what she called ``probably the best start of my life,'' Blair set a new world record in the 500 meters to beat out East Germany's defending Olympic champion Christa Rothenburger for the gold medal. The result was especially satisfying to her hometown police officers, who, though their Policemen's Benevolent Association, are supporting her in a sponsorship capacity.

Thus ``the force'' was with her, as was Milwaukee Bucks' basketball player Jack Sikma, a friend of one of Bonnie's brothers and another sponsor of the Blair family's resident blur.

The 500 meters might not sound like a sprint, but it is in speed skating, where competitors cover ground in a hurry. It is the equivalent of the 100 meters in track and field, and Monday night Blair exploded around Calgary's domed oval at an average speed of 28.7 m.p.h.

That's flying, which is exactly what she knew she had to do after Rothenburger, skating only two pairs before her, broke the world record of 39.43 Blair had set last March. (The GDR's top sprinter had actually already broken the record in December with a 39.39 clocking at an Olympic preview event here, but it takes a while for marks to become official and that one is still pending.)

Rothenburger and Blair enjoy a friendly but intense rivalry that compares to the prime years of the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova tennis battles.

``This year Christa and I have been going back and forth in winning, and I think today it was just whoever had a better day,'' Bonnie said.

With figure skater Katarina Witt and a small contingent of East German Olympians serving as cheerleaders, Rothenburger covered the distance in 39.12 seconds.

That looked like a tough act to follow, but some encouraging practice results from earlier in the Games gave Bonnie the confidence, and a pro-American crowd, including 20 relatives, supplied some extra boost as she rocketed far ahead of Poland's Zofia Tikarczyk and pushed herself to a 39.10 clocking and yet another world best - even if barely.

``Two 1/100ths, it's not very much,'' she said of her narrow margin of victory. The bronze in the first women's race here went to another East German skater, Karin Kania, keeping alive the streak she started in 1984 when she won won medals at all four distances. Her time of 39.24 would have won the event at all previous Olympics by a wide margin, and would have set a new record here had not the other two skated before her.

Both Kania and Rothenburger paid tribute to the compact Midwesterner who beat them out, calling her ``a very nice person'' and saying they ``like her very much.''

At 5 ft. 5 in. and 125 lbs, Blair is smaller in stature than most of the East Germans, who have become the dominant force in women's speed skating. To compensate, she's tried to become a superior technician.

That's okay at the shorter distances, but the East Germans, with their powerful gliding, are expected to monopolize the medal podium as the distances increase - just as they did at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, four years ago when they wound up with 9 of the 12 medals.

On Friday, however, Blair likes her chances in the 1,000. And back in Champaign, the police would love nothing more than to issue her another speeding citation.

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