Speedskating preview: Kramer, Nesbitt likely to shine at Vancouver Games
HAMAR, Norway – There are no more Eric Heiden years like 1980, when Olympic domination meant perfection – winning every single event. Now, being half as good likely will allow an athlete to reign supreme over the Olympic oval.
That translates to three of a possible six golds at the Richmond hall just south of Vancouver. Among the men, it likely will pit Dutchman Sven Kramer vs. American skater Shani Davis. Among the women look for Canada’s Christine Nesbitt vs. the Czech Republic’s Martina Sablikova for most gold.
And when it comes to national anthem’s tugging at the heart, “O Canada” should give the Dutch “Wilhelmus” a run for the glory, with “The Star-Spangled Banner” coming close behind.
Dutchman Kramer uses his giant stride to win the long-distance 5,000 and 10,000, and Davis relies on his unmatched smoothness to glide to 1,000 and 1,500 gold.
The team pursuit on the final weekend of the games looked like it could be a final skate-off to decide who rules the ice. But Davis recently decided to skip the team event and concentrate on his individual races instead.
A similar no-show for the team pursuit four years ago triggered the fieriest feud Turin saw – Davis against his aggrieved teammate Chad Hedrick, who saw Davis’ withdrawal as a body blow to his bid to equal Heiden’s 1980 record of five golds.
Both have mellowed with age. When a Dutch television crew recently sought to stoke the old fires, Davis grabbed the mike from the commentator, lecturing: “Hedrick is not a bad person, OK?”
Hedrick has wizened, too, realizing the days of chasing Heiden are over. Instead of five titles in Turin, he ended with one gold, one silver and one bronze. It was a great achievement, but one that pre-Olympic hype turned into a huge letdown.
Now, the two Americans could have their biggest clash right where it belongs – on the ice – in the 1,500 on Feb. 20.
For the rest, skating is looking increasingly like athletics – you cannot be Usain Bolt and long-distance great Kenenisa Bekele at the same time. The last one to win three gold was Johann Olav Koss at the 1994 Lillehamer Games, and the Norwegian lives on in Olympic lore.
The rise of specialist sprinters and long-distance skaters makes Davis’ decision to race everything from the 500 to the 10,000 harder to understand. In this age of increasing focus, a skater such as Dutchman Bob de Jong has basically committed four years to extend his 10,000 title alone.
The 10K still has a romantic charm to it, dating from the days of open-air Olympics. It meant battling freezing wind and horizontal snow that would cake skaters’ clothes in white and freeze their eyelashes.
It is a race the Dutch have dominated for the past dozen years, and this time their fervent skating fans are convinced nothing can go wrong with Kramer.
He exudes that same confidence, especially after winning his fourth consecutive European all-round title on Jan. 10. Add three world all-round and six long distance titles and, the 23-year-old is one of the most dominating racers in the history of the sport.
Olympic gold though, is still missing. He clipped a marker to bring down the pursuit team in Turin and was so flustered he finished out of the medals in the 10,000. He did win a silver and bronze, but it still was a letdown.
“I don’t have my gold medal, and I will go for that,” he said.
In the 5,000, one of his toughest rivals will be Enrico Fabris, the Italian hero of the Turin Games with two golds and a bronze. And he was the last man to beat Kramer over a 5,000, way back in 2007.
“You can see that he is not unbeatable,” said the Italian.
If Fabris was the male star of the Lingotto Oval, Canada’s Cindy Klassen was even better, hailed by International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge as the “the woman of the games” when she won five medals overall, including the 1,500-meter gold.
She sat out last season to recover from surgery on her knees and qualified for three events. She has yet to come even close to her sterling form of 2006, and Canada had better bank on Nesbitt, a favorite for the 1,000, 1,500 and a key member in the team pursuit, to get gold.
As much as Nesbitt tries, the underdog tag no longer applies to her. “So far as me, I don’t have a lot of Olympic experience; the last time I was in the Winter Olympics, I was a nobody,” she said. Well, no more.
Look at the World Cup standings. She leads the 1,000 with a perfect four wins and just trails her teammate Kristina Groves in the 1,500 largely because she competed in one race fewer.
Nesbitt should lead a team which is strong in all events except the 500. And after they brought home 7 medals from Turin, the women skaters will be heavily counted upon to push Canada up the medal standings again. A half dozen is a realistic possibility.
Long-distance star Sablikova, who won the European allround championships, says “all Canadians are my biggest competitors.”
With a superlative skating technique, the lithe Czech has left much more muscular opponents in her wake time and again. Only Germany’s Stephanie Beckert has been able to beat her in World Cup events. And no Canadian has been able to get close to the Czech so far.
Then again, there is nothing like the Olympics, throwing surprises every time, as Fabris knows.
“In Vancouver, everything will be different,” Sablikova said.
Especially for Germany, which will be racing without Claudia Pechstein. The grand dame of speedskating, with five gold and nine Olympic medals overall, is fighting a doping suspension. Instead, Germany will count on sprint star Jenny Wolf, who already set a world record this season but must hold off China’s Wang Beixing.