In the Speed Zone


TURIN, Italy -- Four years ago, Apolo Ohno earned a gold medal and death threats.

This time around the short-track oval, he's hoping for more of the former and none of the latter.

"It's definitely not going to be easy. The Olympics is a place where anything can happen," said Ohno, 23. "It all comes down to basically two minutes of racing. Four years of training down to two minutes, That's pretty crazy."

Over the course of four days, beginning Sunday, the Seattle-born skater will compete in four events: the 500-meter "all-out ballistic sprint," the 1,000-meter distance he calls "the king's race," the 1,500-meter event that involves strategy, and the team relay, with bodies flying everywhere.

But, right out of the box, Ohno will come face to face with the distance that earned him the wrath of a nation.

In Salt Lake City, Ohno got through the preliminary rounds of the 1,500 by hanging back and making his move late. In the final, he tried to do the same, picking his way through the field from last place until he was just behind the shoulder of the leader, Kim Dong Sung of South Korea. In the final turn, Ohno shifted gears and moved to the inside. Kim blocked his path and crossed the finish line first.

But as the television cameras followed a flag-waving Kim around the ice, the judges disqualified him, saying he had illegally blocked Ohno. Korean Olympic officials did not appeal the decision.

Ohno's silver became gold. Korean fans went from ecstasy to anguish. They booed the judges and Ohno and sent 16,000 e-mails of protest - some with death threats - to Olympic officials.

The next year, Ohno and the rest of the U.S. short-track team opted out of a race in South Korea after a newspaper there called him "the most hated athlete in South Korea," which fueled Internet death threats.

However, the fires burned out. The U.S. team returned to Seoul last year for a World Cup event. With 100 security guards present, Ohno skated to two gold medals.

At a news conference yesterday, he said the controversy left a "very powerful" impression on him.

"I don't think you can really enjoy a controversy. It's never anything nice," he said. "But it's something that happens that's out of my control. The only things I can control is prepare for a race, go out there and compete the best I can and then get off the ice. Hopefully, I can still hold my chin high."

Ohno thrives on what he calls the "any given Sunday" aspect of short track.

He had to settle for silver in the 1,000 in Salt Lake City after he and three other skaters got tangled and sprawled across the ice, allowing Australian Steven Bradbury to win his country's first Winter Games gold medal. Ohno slid across the finish line on all fours for the silver.

"I think there's a little bit of luck in every single race," he said.

After the 2002 Games, Ohno examined his training regimen and decided to "bump it up a level" in nutrition, weightlifting and on-ice practice.

"The world has gotten so strong since the last Games. Every single country has [raised] its level. Everybody can skate fast. Everybody can skate hard. There's no more slouching in the game. Your heat can be harder than your semifinal. Your semifinal could be 10 times harder than your final. Getting past every round is getting hard," he said.

"From here on out, it's positive thinking for me. I can do this. I'm here. I want to reach my goals and do my best."


TOMORROW, 8 P.M., CHS. 11, 4

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