Tuesday, February 10, 1998
Japan finally wins speedskating gold before sea of rising-sun flagsNAGANO, Japan (AP) -- A silence fell over the massive hall. The sea of rising suns was stilled for a moment.
Certainly, Hiroyasu Shimizu felt the weight of the entire nation riding on his low-slung shoulders as he toed the line at M-Wave for the finals of the 500-meter speedskating event today. He had talked about the pressure all week, fully realizing that his countrymen expected him to atone for past Olympic failures.
"Yes, I am nervous," Shimizu had said a few days ago.
It would have been easy to crumble under those kind of expectations. Instead, Shimizu followed the advice of those in the 10,000-seat hall who carried blue signs imploring him to "Race Like The Wind."
Shimizu exploded from the line and never looked back, giving Japan its first skating gold medal in Olympic history. The fastest man on ice set an Olympic record for a second straight day in the two-round event, his time of 35.59 seconds giving him a total of 1 minute, 11.35 seconds.
He easily won the gold, defeating Canada's Jeremy Wotherspoon by nearly a half-second. Another Canadian, Kevin Overland, took the bronze, while Casey FitzRandolph faded from third to sixth aftr posting only the 13th-fastest time of the second race, denying the United States its first medal of these Olympics.
FitzRandolph, who has struggled to adjust to the new clap skates, had to go to the line four times because of false starts by both skaters in his heat, plus a warning for having his skate on the line. He still managed a decent start but seemed to lose speed coming off the final turn. When the 23-year-old from Verona, Wis., crossed the line, he bowed his head and shook it slightly, knowing his chances of making a trip to the podium were gone.
"By the time we went back to the line that fourth time, I could feel myself just shaking like crazy," said FitzRandolph, ranked 19th in the 500 World Cup standings this season. "I'm a little disappointed, but I'm not crushed."
While the Americans' Olympic agony continued, the host country finally got something to cheer about. Shimizu, world record holder in the 500, had to block out the memory of past Japanese flops like figure skater Midori Ito, who lost a chance at gold in 1992 when she botched the short program. Or Masahiko Harada, who blew his ski-jumping team's virtually unbeatable lead on the last jump at Lillehammer four years ago.
Shimizu, who almost seems to be crawling along the ice as he tucks into his low crouch, sailed through the first 100 meters in a blistering 9.54 seconds. The crowd, eerily silent while awaiting the starter's gun, rose in unison as Shimizu cruised around M-Wave.
Standing five and six deep along the upper rim of the arena, spectators strained to get a glimpse of Shimizu as he streaked by. They waved the red-dot flag of the rising sun, tooted horns, yelled and shimmied. Even Crown Prince Naruhito, son of the emperor, rose from his seat along the front straightaway and displayed his emotions for the world to see.
When Shimizu crossed the line, flung down his hood and looked back at the scoreboard to confirm what he already knew, the emotion overwhelmed him. He broke down in tears as he grabbed a Japanese flag and made his victory lap, for once not having to worry about how fast he was going.
A Dutch band named "Small Beer" filled M-Wave with the song "We Are The Champions" to salute Japan's newest hero.
Canada not only captured the silver and bronze, but brothers Sylvain and Patrick Bouchard finished fourth and fifth. Besides FitzRandolph's sixth-place showing, other Americans fared poorly.
Marc Pelchat of Chelmsford, Mass., was 23rd with a combined time of 1:13.35; David Cruikshank of Northbrook, Ill., finished 25th at 1:13.53; and Cory Carpenter of Brookfield, Wis., was 36th at 1:15.11. Z