SALT LAKE CITY
THE Olympic Games don't award medals to athletes for acting with grace and forgiveness in the face of competitive disasters caused by their foes.
But the crowds know grace when they see it, which is why their respect for a onetime delinquent named Apolo Anton Ohno is deeper today than all the acclaim he's achieved as a 19-year-old speed-skating prodigy.
He might have become a bum. The road to oblivion was open to him. But if he's mended enough from the chaotic finish in his debut as an Olympian a few days ago, he's going back onto the ice tonight without bitterness or elaborate martyrdom, and he's going for a gold.
He was within milliseconds of it last weekend. His racing life is short-track skating, which bears an equal resemblance to a jail break and destruction derby at the carnival. In the congestion at the end, a skater bumped him from behind. He went down. Sliding on the ice with his thigh gouged by a skate, he finished second for silver.
His reaction to his bizarre loss of the gold must have won him instant admiration among the millions around the world who saw it. When the bodies had all been reassembled after the race, and nobody was seriously hurt except for the gash in Ohno's thigh, an astounded Australian named Steven Bradbury stood atop the podium. Ohno grabbed his hand and hugged him in congratulations, laughing about the crazy entanglement.
Here was a potential winner of four Olympic medals, muscular and daring, a Japanese-American kid from Seattle with one of those signature tufts of hair under his lower lip. He was so big in the avalanche of publicity preceding the games that he might have been the poster boy for the whole show. A few hours after he'd been accidentally whipsawed in the closing sprint of the 1,000-meter race, he was asked whether he was depressed by it. This is a macho kid, revved by the hunt. "No," he said, "my journey is not about winning medals. It's about being able to go to the starting line in the Olympics, experiencing it and performing my best. Things like that happen in this sport. It's what I live for. I was happy with my performance."