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In skating, luck trumps skill

This gives the sport an anything-goes dimension that can be outlandishly cruel.

Sochi |
February 17, 2014 4:01:55 am
Charles Hamelin of Canada(C) fell in the 1,000 meters and took out Eddy Alvarez (2nd R) of USA. The skaters in first and second place get a pass after a collision; Alvarez was in third. (AP) Charles Hamelin of Canada(C) fell in the 1,000 meters and took out Eddy Alvarez (2nd R) of USA. The skaters in first and second place get a pass after a collision; Alvarez was in third. (AP)

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.”

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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 excited by lottery tickets. Because, hey, who knows? Anything can happen. Others — and these tend to be the recently victorious — minimize luck, or try to put it in context.

“Luck comes from what you did before,” Russia’s Viktor Ahn said at a news conference after nabbing the gold medal in the 1,000 meters. “Luck is a reward.”
Sjinkie Knegt of the Netherlands, who  had won bronze, seemed eager to etch luck out of the picture. “Most of the time,” he said, looking deadly serious, “the best guy in the world wins.”

Good luck charms
What about the rest of the time? Inevitably, a lot of short-track skaters have prerace rituals, for those occasions when excellence will not suffice. Véronique Pierron, a member of the French team, makes sure to put her left foot on the ice first before every heat. Valérie Maltais of Canada touches her helmet when she enters a rink.

The problem, believe it or not, is that these rituals do not help. Emily Scott, a 24-year-old from Springfield, Mo., always straps on her left skate first. Adhering to that custom did not save her on Friday from a wipeout inflicted by an opponent in the finals of the women’s 1,500.

Through a whole day of competition, it was one calamity after another. Maybe that is why Alvarez, who has an endorsement-ready smile and perfectly trimmed facial hair, opined about his fate with surfer-dude calm. He had gone through an operation to repair torn knee tendons in 2012, which left him in severe pain and immobilized for months. On the upside, he learned the guitar.

But suffering through an ordeal like that, for an end like this? Reporters gathered around him wanted to know: Are you peeved at that Canadian? Are you furious at the injustice of it all? And what did he say to you after the race?

“He’s like, ‘Hey, man, I’m sorry,’ in his French accent,” Alvarez said, chuckling. “I was like, It’s all good, man. It’s part of the race. We all know it just happens sometimes.”

Right behind him came Hamelin himself. What did this man have to say about the cosmic wrongness of this disaster? “The ice break under my blades, and next thing I know, I’m on the boards with the American guy,” he said.

The American guy. You realize that Hamelin has not bothered to learn the name of the man whose race he ended. And you learn the final and most galling way that short track is like life: When catastrophes happen, rarely is anyone around to raise a hand and say, “This is all my fault.”

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