COVER

GRIEF ON THE OVAL

JOHN HOWSE February 29 1988
COVER

GRIEF ON THE OVAL

JOHN HOWSE February 29 1988

GRIEF ON THE OVAL

COVER

He is Canada’s Mr. Olympics, a four-medal winner competing in his fourth Winter Games. And last week, as Olympic speed skating came indoors—unharried by the high winds that delayed alpine, luge and ski jumping events—Gaetan Boucher pumped his skates around Calgary’s glistening 400-m, $40-million enclosed speed skating Olympic Oval in his farewell to Olympic competition. The 29-year-old member of the Order of Canada won no medals: he placed 14th in the 500 m, a fine fifth in the 1,000 m—his best distance—and ninth in the demanding 1,500 m. Yet it was in last Thursday’s 1,000-m sprint, won by the powerful Soviet skater Nikolai Guliaev, 22, that the former champion realized that it was unlikely he would make another trip to the podium. “By that last curve I was already dead,” said the native of Charlesbourg, Que. “My legs didn’t want to push. I don’t have the same efficiency. It’s the same old ankle injury.”

For Boucher, the ankle broken in 1983

is more explanation than excuse. Immediately after his fifth-place finish in the 1,000 m, Boucher cycled for 20 minutes in the Olympic Oval gym to prevent his ankle from stiffening before his final Games appearance to defend his Olympic 1,500-m title.

Failed: But Boucher’s problems were minor compared with those encountered by U.S. sprinter Dan Jansen, 22. The 1,000-m world champion’s sister, Jane Beres, 27, died of leukemia on Feb. 14, hours before he was to compete in the 500 m. He fell in the first turn and collided with Japanese skater Yasushi Kuroiwa. On Thursday night in his 1,000-m specialty, Jansen fell again—on the straightaway—and pulled out of the race as members of his family watched in disbelief. Also on hand to comfort him was his fiancée, Natalie Grenier, 23, of Ste-Foy, Que., a member of the Canadian speed skating team. Later that night he flew to West Allis, Wis., for his sister’s funeral.

The U.S. team itself seemed distracted by internal dissension. A sportswriter nicknamed the skaters “Team Legal”

when members threatened court action against the U.S. Olympic Committee for the way it had selected the team. Then, the highly rated men skaters failed to win a medal. Nick Thometz, the world-record holder in the 500 m, finished eighth in that event and a disappointing 18th in the 1,000 m. Coach Michael Crowe admitted that at least half of those on his 20-man team opposed his stewardship. But Eric Flaim, only 20, restored U.S. hopes with a silver medal in the 1,500 m, won by Andre Hoffmann of East Germany in the world record time of 1:52.06. Austria’s Michael Hadschieff took the bronze medal.

Leader: While no Canadians won medals, Guy Thibault, 23, of Quebec City established that he is ready to assume Boucher’s mantle of team leader. He finished an impressive seventh in both the 500-m and 1,000-m events, setting a new Canadian record of 36.96 seconds for the 500 m. Said Thibault: “I have to be happy about the 500 m, but I could have done better. Everything has to be there for me to win a medal. My start was not good. And I took the last corner too wide.”

Everything was there for 28-year-old Swedish skater Tomas Gustafson in the men’s 5,000 m. Last week he became the first speed skater ever to consecutively defend an Olympic title in that event. It took Gustafson 28 seconds less than his 1984 Sarajevo time to win his second gold. Said an ecstatic Gustafson, who since 1984 endured both an injured knee and an attack of meningitis: “How do you describe happiness? I have to write a poem.”

Holland’s national sports hero Leo Visser won the silver in the 5,000 m, and his teammate Gerard Kemkers, the bronze. Another Dutchman, Jan Ykema, took the silver medal in the 500 m, won by East Germany’s Uwe-Jens Mey, while the bronze went to Japan’s Akira Kuroiwa, who trained on the Olympic Oval track with the Canadian team.

Glorious: The stars of the second week of speed skating will likely be Karin Kania, 26, the East German holder of two world records, and star sprinter Bonnie Blair, 23, of the United States. But the undisputed star of the first week was the Oval itself. The move indoors from traditional windswept Olympic outdoor venues resulted in a reprinting of the Olympic record book. No fewer than 29 of the 37 competitors in the 5,000-m event bettered the Olympic record set by famed American skater Eric Heiden, who won an unprecedented five gold medals at the Lake Placid Games in 1980.

But the roar of the crowds was the same. They cheered Gaétan Boucher with all their heart throughout his three events. That was as much to urge him on to one more glorious victory as to bid a great Olympian a grateful farewell.

JOHN HOWSE in Calgary