NASCAR and professional wrestling are not sports in the Winter Olympics.
We have a short track.
Instead of stock cars battling each other in Bristol, there are daring skaters spinning around a track set up on a hockey-sized ice rink at the capital’s indoor stadium – bumping into each other and drawing, dishing out an elbow here, a shoulder there as they battle for position in what appear to be incredibly tight corners.
The unfortunate ones – and there are MANY of them – end up slamming into the thick pads that dampen the outer boards, often after receiving a subtle nudge from one of their competitors.
Dale Earnhardt would fit perfectly into this group.
Then, when the race is over, things get really intriguing.
As far as we can tell, they don’t script the results like WWE does, but it usually comes down to the almighty word of the head referee. At these Games, he’s a white-haired man in a jacket, tie and skates, who looks a bit like Burt Bacharach but wields the power of Vince McMahon.
No race is official until the referee makes the call, usually after watching a video replay monitor as skaters and fans fidget nervously. The quirks of the rulebook usually leave plenty of room for bitching and moaning.
“It can definitely be frustrating,” said American short tracker Kristen Santos. “But I think that’s something we know in this sport. We all chose it. Part of what makes the sport so exciting is the uncertainty. You don’t know who’s going to win every time. “
Short track has been an official part of the Winter Games since 1992. I got my first taste of it a decade later in Salt Lake City, where Australian Steven Bradbury pulled off one of the great upsets of the Olympic history simply by standing.
Bradbury was hopelessly passed in the 1,000 meters final and fell behind, hoping others would fall or be disqualified so he could maybe squeeze through with a bronze medal. It worked beyond his wildest dreams when the four skaters in front of him, including American star Apolo Ohno, collapsed.
Bradbury crossed the line first with a dazed look.
It’s basically a short route.
“Short track speed skating is a bit different sport,” said Britain’s Farrell Treacy, who qualified for the men’s 1500m final in Beijing. “But that’s why I love the sport. The uncertainty. The fact that you’re together.”
The ice conditions only add to the unpredictability. Zambonis come out every few runs to resurface, and workers are constantly pouring buckets of water and blasting ice with a fire extinguisher-type device to smooth things over.
But it’s impossible to keep the ice intact for every race, as Treacy discovered.
“I was in heat with an Italian,” he said. “In the first three laps he fell right in front of me, just because the ice broke. The ice was terrible those first laps. A lot of people fell.
“These are just things you have to deal with. We train every day. We train ourselves to face the “indistributables”.
Nothing could be more dramatic than Bradbury’s victory in Beijing, but there were still plenty of thrills and twists.
Corrinne Stoddard found herself with a broken nose in her first-ever Olympic race, losing advantage and sinking into the padding so hard her knees smashed into her face.
“I didn’t have much time to react,” said the 20-year-old American. “My main goal wasn’t to cut or break my leg, so I took my feet out. But when I took my feet out, my knees went into my face. Basically, I broke the nose.
She returned to the ice a few nights later wearing a patch on the bridge of her nose that helped numb the pain.
There was certainly no thought of quitting.
“Damn no! said Stoddard. “I went to the doctor that night (after his accident) and they said, ‘You can either stay here or you can go home.’ And I was like, ‘I’m not going home!'”
The South Korean team, a mecca for short track, has also considered returning home after the disqualification of two of its skaters this week. World record holder Hwang Daeheon is among those penalized.
The federation filed a complaint with the International Skating Union and the IOC, although its protests had absolutely no chance of changing the outcome.
As with WWE, the referee’s decision is often debated but never changed.
Yoon Hong Geun, mission chief for South Korea, said any idea of bailing out Beijing had been rejected “because we have many races left in the remaining days”.
“We decide to stay and finish the games,” he said.
Hwang bounced back from his disqualification to win gold in the men’s 1500m. After crossing the line first – and making sure everything was in order with the referee – he dropped to his knees and stared up at the ceiling in thanks.
Derived from traditional speed skating, which takes place on a 400-meter oval and puts competitors in their own lanes, racing strictly against the clock, short track is certainly not for everyone.
And don’t even get me started on the relays, which are chaotically organized with four skaters per team all on the ice at once, slapping each other with a rump push.
It’s busier than the metro at rush hour.
“The rustle and the commotion, all that stuff, I love it,” Treacy said, with a big smile. “I sometimes watch feature films and think, ‘Ahh, maybe it’s just up my street.’ But then I’m like, ‘I think I like my sport a little better.’ »
Hard to disagree with that.
Nothing spices up the Olympics like a dash of NASCAR mixed in with WWE.
Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and check out his work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
More AP Winter Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports