THE WINTER OLYMPICS

THE END OF AN ERA

JOHN HOWSE March 7 1988
THE WINTER OLYMPICS

THE END OF AN ERA

JOHN HOWSE March 7 1988

THE END OF AN ERA

THE WINTER OLYMPICS

It was a lonely Olympic night for a woman accustomed to adoring crowds.

After picking her way through a throng of excited Dutch fans dancing a conga line and chanting “Olé, olé, we are the champions,” Karin Kania— winner of five medals at previous Olympics—made a solitary walk last week from the brightly lit Olympic Oval into the chilly darkness of the University of Calgary campus. Three hours earlier Kania, one of the formidable East German speed skating queens, painfully forced herself across the 3,000-m finish line after almost stopping in agony with muscle cramps at the 2,400-m mark.

Assisted by her coach, Rainer Mund, she propped her feet on a bench and lay flat on her back on the oval infield floor as her trainers massaged her muscular legs.

Then she congratulated winner and new world-record holder Yvonne Van Gennip of the Netherlands, hugged her teammates— silver medallist Andrea Ehrig and bronze medallist Gabi Zange—and slowly, painstakingly, stepped back onto the ice to skate until the pain subsided. Finally, she was able to leave the oval, but the sound of the Dutch celebration followed her as she walked slowly to the athletes’ village.

Failure: Kania’s fourth-place finish was unexpected. The striking 26-year-old, who says that she does not want her two-year-old son Sasha to be involved in sport because of its relentless demands, was expected to win no fewer than four medals in Calgary. Instead, she won a bronze early in the week in the 500m sprint, beaten by teammate Christa Rothenburger, 28, and new world-record setter Bonnie Blair, 23, of the United States. Still, her failure to win a medal or set a record in the 3,000-m event was crushing. “She blew it,” said Andrew Barron, coach of Canada’s youthful women’s team. “Even a great skater like her made a tactical mistake. She went out too fast on that first lap.” One reason: the luck of the draw pitted her against Olympic record-holder Ehrig, 27. Kania’s coach agreed with the analysis: “She was too fast. She became a little exhausted. It is unfortunate that she raced against Ehrig.”

Indeed, Kania skated the fastest opening 200 m of the evening and, until she faltered, was well ahead of a world-record pace. But her final lap was one of the slowest. Ehrig held the pace to establish a new world record of four minutes, 12.09 seconds. But that stood only until Van Gennip’s startling time of four minutes, 11.94 seconds. The 23-year-old former medical student’s victory surprised even veteran Dutch speed skating officials. Last December Van Gennip underwent surgery on her right foot to repair friction injuries to a

tendon. “I am especially satisfied that I beat Karin and Andrea just at the moment before they retire,” said Van Gennip. And Saturday night she did it again, winning the gold in the 1,500-m event.

For Kania and Ehrig, who have dominated the sport for seven years, it was their last Olympic competition. Both skaters are products of East Germany’s intense sports incubator, which selects promising athletes at an early age for development as worldclass performers. Kania was the 500-m gold medallist at Lake Placid in 1980, and at Sarajevo in 1984 she won gold in both the 1,000-m and 1,500-m events and silver in 500 m and 3,000 m. Ehrig’s medal run began with a second place in the 3,000-m event at the 1976 Innsbruck Games. She won the 1984 Olympic 3,000 m, and finished second to Kania in the 1,000 m and 1,500 m.

Challenge: Now Blair joins Van Gennip’s strong challenge to the East Germans’ continued domination. Urged on by a 20strong family contingent and financed in part by the 90-officer police force of her home town of Champaign, 111., whose members raised money for her through dances and raffle-ticket sales, Blair faced a pressure-packed event in the 500-m sprint. Defending Olympic champion Rothenburger had broken her own world ço record with a sizzling 39.12-second race. But Blair accelerated 9 into what she called “the best i start of my life” and shaved a I minuscule 2/100ths of a second off z Rothenburger’s time to win the i gold medal. “I knew I could go faster when I saw Christa’s time. The 500 m is so much of an all-out race,” said a triumphant Blair. A tearyeyed Rothenburger acknowledged Blair’s victory: “I set a record, Bonnie came after me and took the challenge. Whoever had the strongest nerves would win this race.” Rothenburger’s nerves held in the 1,000 m as she set a world record. In that race, Kania took the silver, and Blair won the bronze. In the 1,500-m event, Kania won another silver, and Ehrig, the bronze. Still, at the close of the Calgary Games, as Kania and Ehrig bid farewell to their § final Olympic competition, a new I era in speed skating had already ^ dawned. For the first time in years, it was truly an internation-

al contest.

JOHN HOWSE

in Calgary