Speed Skating Shocker: Kramer Disqualified Courtesy of Coach’s Error

It’s a standard Olympic story:  The athlete spends years training, working diligently to improve his speed, strength, and endurance.  He finally gets the opportunity to attend the Olympic Games, and in a race where he is favored, he sets a new Olympic record on a track known to be slow, making the accomplishment all the more amazing.   He has won the gold medal—

–until he is disqualified due to an error by HIS COACH!

The scene yesterday at the Richmond Olympic Oval was like nothing I’d ever witnessed in my decades of watching Olympic speed skating.  God knows the speed skating events needed some spice, but this isn’t quite what I was expecting or wanting.  I certainly was not wishing this on Sven Kramer, nor on the dedicated Dutch fans who live and breathe speed skating.

Kramer, as I had earlier predicted, was the favorite in the long distance events.  He was the heir to the speed skating throne—a throne previously held by a long list of phenomenal athletes from the Netherlands.  Just as Canada’s past time is hockey, America’s is baseball and England’s is soccer, the Netherlands has speed skating.  Having shown promise in Torino by medaling at only 19 years of age, Kramer arrived in Vancouver the heavy favorite.  As with every Olympics, throngs of avid Dutch fans were in attendance at every speed skating event in Vancouver, cheering on their team of orange.  Kramer did not disappoint, early on winning gold in the 5,000 meters.  Yet his best event, the 10,000 meters, was not to occur until a week later, yesterday, one of the last remaining speed skating events of these 2010 Games.  Kramer was poised for another medal, validating his place in Dutch history and as a hero to millions at only 23 years of age. The race was his to lose.  What could possibly go wrong?   Certainly Kramer isn’t superhuman, but it would be ridiculous to suggest that he could make an error and lose the gold medal, right?

Ridiculous indeed, except that we forget about the coaching error factor.  You see, technically in my book (and probably Kramer’s), no error was made by Kramer.  He was only following the faulty instructions yelled to him by his coach, Gerard Kemkers.  In speed skating, skaters must alternate between the outer and inner lanes once every lap.  The change must be made in the backstretch, before reaching the cone marker on the far end.  This is required by the International Skating Union (ISU) to make the distance equal for every paired skaters.  With just over seven laps to go, and on target for a new Olympic record, Kramer’s coach panicked as his athlete approached that cone on the far end of the backstretch, shouting directions for Kramer to choose the inside lane—immediately.  The problem, however, is that the instructions were incorrect.  It was Kramer’s turn to alternate to the outer lane, and although Kramer believed he should move to the outer lane, he chose to listen to his coach, thus switching to the wrong lane and disqualifying himself .

Mea Culpa: Coach breaks the news to athlete.

Kramer celebrated as he crossed the finish line, clueless to the error.  In his mind, and in the minds of all of us, he was victorious, the new Olympic champion with a new Olympic record.  In fact, the next best time after Kramer’s was 4 seconds behind, which ended up becoming the gold medal time raced by South Korea’s Lee Seung-Hoon.  Kramer, furious when Kemkers told him the news, pushed his coach aside, threw his sunglasses in disgust, and was, like the thousands in attendance, stunned.  In tears, Kramer was inconsolable, the heart-wrenching pain evident on the desolate skater’s face.  The agony and disappointment was all the more profound when reading comments made later by both Kramer and Kemkers:

KRAMER: “Usually, I don’t want to blame anyone else, I take responsibility as the skater on the ice. But this time I can’t do anything else….You have to decide in a split second. I should have gone with my own thoughts but I was brought into doubt. This really sucks. This is a real expensive mistake. This really sucks.”

KEMKERS: “My world collapsed. This is a disaster. This is the worst moment in my career. Sven was right, I was wrong….”

We have seen Olympic dreams come crashing to a halt by falls, injury, and mental errors by athletes.  But for such a travesty to occur because of a coach’s error…?  Of course, it is a harsh reminder of the fallibility of all Olympians—both coaches and athletes.  However, still, for the fault to lie on a coach instead of the athlete is a sore wound in Kramer and the Dutch people which will no doubt take years to heal.    Let’s hope Kemkers seeks protection when he returns to his homeland, should he even decide to return.  Somebody, please give him Steve Bartman’s phone number.  I have a feeling there are very few in this world who can sympathize any better than Bartman when such a huge mistake is made at a sporting event.

Swifter, Higher, Stronger.

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