Two of short track speedskating’s biggest stars won’t be on the ice at the Sochi Olympics.
Apolo Anton Ohno, the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian, is retired. Wang Meng, who is Ohno’s equivalent in China, broke her ankle in training and isn’t expected to be healed in time to compete at her third Olympics.
Their absences open up the podium for the powerful South Koreans, the Chinese, the U.S. men and the Russians, who will enjoy the home advantage at the Iceberg Skating Palace.
The five days of short track competition begin Feb. 10 with the men’s 1,500 meters.
Ohno will be on the sidelines in Sochi working as an analyst for NBC, the U.S. network for the games. He still finds his sport as thrilling as when he skated his way to eight medals over three Olympics.
“It’s so unique. It just looks impossible. It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “These guys are whipping around this rink at 30 miles per hour. They’re skating on a blade that is 1 millimeter thick, they’re passing, it’s very dangerous.”
Daring moves and crashes are part of the sport known as roller derby on ice. One of short track’s most enduring memories came at the 2002 Games, when Steven Bradbury of Australia won the 1,000 after all four of his rivals, including Ohno, crashed in the final turn. A shocked Bradbury skated across the finish line, his arms thrown up in disbelief at winning his country’s first winter gold medal.
Without Ohno, the Americans’ best chance at winning gold is in the men’s 5,000 relay. Two-time bronze medalist J.R. Celski is back for his second games, and he will lead a team comprised of Eddy Alvarez, Kyle Carr, Chris Creveling and 2010 Olympian Jordan Malone.
“I’m very excited to be going with these guys to Sochi,” Celski said. “We all practice together every day and that’s going to make a huge difference.”
Celski and Alvarez qualified for all three individual events.
Charles Hamelin of Canada ranks among the top three in the world at all three distances, and his presence on the relay makes Canada a strong medal contender in the team event.
Victor Ahn and Vladimir Grigorev will carry the hopes of the home team, giving Russian fans a chance to cheer both men on to medals. Ahn is ranked among the top four in each of the individual events.
China’s Wu Dajing and Han Tianyu have a shot in the 500 and 1,000, but the men’s team is not as strong as the women’s.
Wang has been the dominant female short track skater since the 2006 Turin Games. She owns four gold medals, a silver and a bronze. The 28-year-old Chinese got hurt on Jan. 16, and the usual recovery time is six weeks, jeopardizing her chances of winning a third straight gold in the 500 meters.
Off the ice, Wang was expelled from the national team twice, most recently in 2011 following a drunken brawl with the team manager. She was reinstated in 2012 following a national debate about the massive pressure placed on Chinese athletes by the state sports system.
If Wang is unable to compete, countrywoman Fan Kexin is a medal contender in the 500 as is Zhou Yang in the 1,500.
The Chinese women will battle South Korea for gold in the 3,000 relay.
Shim Suk Hee of South Korea is a threat in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 women’s races. Her teammates Kim A-Lang and Park Seung-Hi could also medal in the individual races while helping form a strong relay.
Arianna Fontana of Italy is a top contender, while Jorien ter Mors of the Netherlands will try to be the first skater to medal in both long and short track skating.
The U.S. women will be missing Vancouver medalist Katherine Reutter, who was forced to retire because of injuries at 24. Jessica Smith and Emily Scott each will compete in all three distances, although neither is ranked among the top 10, and the Americans failed to qualify a team for the women’s relay.
“We’re in a second rebuilding mode,” U.S. national coach Stephen Gough said. “With Katherine, that’s a huge loss for the team. You take out your number one skater. It’s hard to replace someone like that.”
The U.S. short track program was in turmoil as recently as 2012, when then-coach Jae Su Chun was accused by a dozen skaters of physical, emotional and verbal abuse. Chun denied all allegations, and is serving a two-year suspension through October.
He is set to be in Sochi to help Smith, his only skater to make the U.S. team. Chun can’t be inside the racing area, but he can communicate with Smith from the stands.
“I definitely wouldn’t be skating at the level I’m skating without his help,” she said.