The collision that sent Eddy Alvarez sprawling on the ice and out of the men’s 1,000-meter short-track competition happened so fast that even his description of it, a few minutes later, was barely longer than a haiku.
“I looked down, and he was just between my legs,” said Alvarez, a 24-year-old from Miami. “Next thing I know, my face hurts.”
The “he” in this tale is Charles Hamelin of Canada, who slipped in the early laps of the race, taking Alvarez, who was mere inches behind, down with him. And that was that. The rules of short track hold that a skater who is in first or second place when bodies start flying gets a pass to the next round. Alvarez was in third, which meant that he could do nothing more than nurse a bruise on his lip and ruminate.
“One heck of a sport, isn’t it?” he said, smiling and looking remarkably at peace under the circumstances. “It’s unfortunate for him. It’s more unfortunate for me.”
Luck plays a quiet role in just about every sport, but it is a noisy, snarling beast in short track. The standard relationship between fault and failure is upended.
Athletes can do exactly what they are supposed to — sail about 30 miles per hour around a 364-foot oval, in a pack of rivals — and find themselves out of contention because someone else slipped up.
This gives the sport an anything-goes dimension that can be outlandishly cruel. Short-track races have been won by the only skater still standing, because the rest have been knocked over like duckpins.
Short track has been called Nascar on ice because of how often it ends in pileups, and it has been derided as a kind of X Games take on the more refined and elegant long-track version of the sport.
But short track works pretty well as a metaphor for life. What other contest in the Olympics captures the mix of skill and randomness that is human existence? Getting flattened by a Canadian while minding one’s own business — while in peak form, no less — is a bit like a car crash, or a stroke, or any number of other unforeseeable tragedies that befall people every day.
Short track is not for those who look to sports as a reprieve from existential angst, as a place where practice, discipline and courage prevail, where the best are always anointed. It is more backgammon than chess.
Short-trackers are resigned to the role of luck, or find it exciting in the same way people are continued…