SALT LAKE CITY - As it turned out, the worst place Apolo Anton Ohno could have been going into the final 50 meters of last night's 1,000-meter final in short-track speed skating was in the lead.
Last place, in fact, would have been ideal. Just seconds from claiming his first Olympic gold medal, Ohno got tangled up and undercut by China's Li Jiajun, causing the skating equivalent of a four-car pileup.
Australia's Steven Bradbury, good fortune's man of the hour, casually avoided the carnage and won a race in which he likely would have finished last. He also made history, winning Australia's first gold medal in any sport in the Winter Olympics.
Ohno, meanwhile, finished second, crawling, not skating, across the finish line, while Mathieu Turcotte of Canada dived headfirst across the line to finish third.
"When I crossed the finish line, I looked around and thought, 'Hang on, this can't be right, I think I won,' " said Bradbury, who was in the finals only because another crash took out two racers in the semifinals and a disqualification got him through the quarterfinals. "Obviously, I'm not the fastest skater out there."
Crazy? Yes. Such pileups are common in short-track races, though everyone admitted afterward this was still one of the strangest finishes in the sport's history. Most of the 15,000-plus at the Salt Lake Ice Center erupted in boos when replays showed Li's right arm crashing into Ohno, essentially pulling him to the ground and into the padded wall.
"That's just short track," Ohno said. "Honestly, I'm really happy for Steven because it couldn't have happened to a better guy."
Li was disqualified, which was of little consolation to Ohno, who needed six stitches to close a cut on his inner thigh and was on crutches after the race. He said he will be ready for his other three events, which begin Wednesday.
Though his quest to win four gold medals was over, Ohno didn't show any disappointment during the medal ceremony.
"I'm not disappointed because I think my performance was probably the best I've ever skated," Ohno said. "It was out of my control. Maybe next time I'll be a little further up front."
When Ohno said it couldn't have happened to a better guy than Bradbury, he wasn't kidding. Good luck had never been the Aussie's strength before last night.
"I kind of have mixed feelings about how I won, but maybe this is a reward for hanging in there for all these years," Bradbury said.
In September 2000, Bradbury was leading a World Cup race in Montreal when he got tangled in a crash and impaled his leg on another skater's blade. He lost four liters of blood and needed 111 stitches.
"I was pretty lucky to survive, actually," Bradbury said.
Not long after, he broke his neck during a practice race and had to wear a halo collar that was screwed into his skull.
"It's funny, my company back home, Revolutionary Boot Company, actually makes Apolo's boots that he skates in," Bradbury said. "Last night I sent [Apolo] an e-mail saying, 'If you win a medal, do you think you could give us a mention?' "
In the 500-meter women's final, China's Yang Yang (A) won the gold medal, blitzing past everyone with a time of 44.187. Evgenia Radanova of Bulgaria grabbed the silver, while China's Wang Chunlu got the bronze.
American Caroline Hallisey finished fifth in the 500 meters.