RICHMOND, B.C. — The sloppy ice at the Richmond Olympic Oval seems to be suiting the South Koreans just fine.
Mo Tae-Bum gave his country its second speedskating medal of the Vancouver Games with a surprising gold in the men’s 500 meters, on another day plagued by problems with the ice-resurfacing machines, this one causing a lengthy delay right in the middle of the first heat.
No problem for Mo.
Representing a country best known for its success in short track, Mo put up the second-best time of the opening race Monday, then blazed around the oval in 34.90 seconds to snatch the gold with a total time of 1 minute, 9.82 seconds. Japan took the next two spots — Keiichiro Nagashima claiming silver (1:09.98) and Joji Kato the bronze (1:10.01).
Mo became the first South Korean to win gold at the Winter Games in a sport other than short track, and he wasn’t even considered the top contender from his country. His specialties are the 1,000 and 1,500.
And get this: He won the biggest race of his life on his 21st birthday.
“It’s my best present,” Mo said through a translator, “and it’s my present to Koreans.”
Lee Kang-seok came in ranked first in the world, just ahead of countryman Lee Kyou-hyuk. But Lee Kang-seok was edged out for a medal, finishing fourth in 1:10.041, while Lee Kyou-hyuk was far back in 15th.
“I was a little bit disappointed that the other two were favorites,” Mo said. “But that gave me an opportunity to do even better and make me more eager to do the race.”
Nagashima fell on the backstretch while slapping hands with his coach, but he had already put up a time that he knew might be good enough for a medal. He slid along on his backside, pumping his fists for the Japanese fans.
“My dad was in the stands and the moment he found out that I won a medal, he was bawling his eyes out,” Nagashima said. “My dad doesn’t usually watch me, but he was there today. I was overwhelmed by that.”
Mika Poutala had the lead after the first round, but a couple of stumbles in the second heat cost him a shot at becoming the first Finnish male to capture speedskating gold since 1928. He had just the 11th-best time of the second race, a total time of 1:10.044 leaving him in fifth.
There was some question about whether this event would even finish Monday.
After the first 10 pairs skated the opening race, there was a delay of about an hour while workers coped with problems to all three of the ice-resurfacing machines, including one kept at the building just in case of an emergency. Officials discussed whether to postpone the rest of the competition to a later date, but one of the machines was fixed in time to get the ice in decent shape.
Still, the glitches in Richmond are becoming more and more of a concern. A day earlier, there was a problem with one of the machines during the women’s 3,000, and there have already been complaints about the skating surface being too inconsistent from one day to the next.
“You just want the ice to be the same at the beginning of the event as the end,” said Derek Parra, the U.S. national coach. “If it happens again, they got to get some other machines in here and be prepared.”
That’s just what organizers are doing. After the race, they announced plans to bring in a Zamboni from the Olympic oval in Calgary. The machines being used in Richmond are made by Olympia.
The South Koreans probably want to keep things just like they are. They already won an unexpected silver in the men’s 5,000 from Lee Seung-hoon. Now, an even more stunning result from Mo, who was ranked 14th in the World Cup standings and had not even cracked the top three in a race this season.
Until the Olympics.
Then there’s the Americans. After three events, they are still looking for their first medal.
Tucker Fredricks was the best hope in the 500, but he stumbled in the first race coming off the first turn, lost momentum making sure he didn’t fall and was out of it before he even got to the second heat. He finished 12th overall.
“It’s tough. I got four more years — oh God, it’s going to be a long time — but you’ve got to suck it up,” said Fredricks, a 500 specialist who has no other real shot at a medal. “I’ll be back. I got nothing else to do.”
Shani Davis didn’t even hang around for the second race. He ranked 18th (35.45) after the opening round and dropped out to focus on Wednesday’s 1,000, in which he’s the defending Olympic champion and world-record holder. He mainly uses the 500 to get in speed work for his best events, the 1,000 and 1,500.
“He just drew on his wisdom and decided to focus on the 1,000,” said Nathaniel Mills, a spokesman for Davis. “Above all, he wants to be fresh for the 1,000, and he wants to get ready for the 1,500 as well. The 500 has one of the greatest risks of injury, and he just wanted to play it safe since he got everything he wanted to get out of this race.”
There was no doubt about the crowd favorite. Canada’s Jeremy Wotherspoon, the world-record holder, hoped to make up for an Olympic career filled with spills and disappointment since he won his only medal, a silver at Nagano 12 long years ago.
Wotherspoon was in the hunt after the first race, holding down fifth place at 35.09. But a slight bobble in the second heat ended his hopes; the 33-year-old faded to ninth and sat alone on a bench in the middle of the oval afterward, knowing he’d lost his last real shot at Olympic gold.
“I felt like I was skating better than that,” he said.
The flamboyant Poutala has been known to slap hands with those sitting along the edge of the oval before a race, high-five the guy in the lane next to him and slide along on the ice on his knees after he’s introduced to the crowd.
Before the first heat, Poutala preened for the crowd and brushed off both his shoulders and the top of his skates a la Usain Bolt, that guy who’s faster than anyone with shoes on his feet rather than skates.
But Bolt came through on the Olympic stage. Poutala fell short, following up the fastest time of the day (34.86) with a sloppy run that ended with him swinging far out of his lane rounding the final turn, crossing more than three-10ths of a second slower (35.18) than he did the first time.
“I just made a few mistakes,” he said. “That was it.”