In the end, the men’s 1,500m short track speed skating competition, the first great hope for a Canadian gold at the Olympics, came down to energy—there was an abundance of it in the crowd, but just not enough of it on the ice where it counted.
In an evening of racing that started off incredibly strong for Canada, Olivier Jean ended up placing 4th while Charles Hamelin, who was heavily favoured to take the gold, came in 7th.
The disappointment was obvious on Hamelin’s face and in his voice after the race. “I didn’t do as good as I can do,” said the resident of Montreal, who came into the Olympics the reigning World Cup champion. As he spoke a TV monitor behind him showed the medal ceremony taking place out on the ice, with Korean Lee Jung Su atop the podium followed by American skater and Dancing with the Stars champ Apolo Ohno and his team mate J.R. Celski. “It’s just a matter of using the energy in a bad moment.”
Jean was far more upbeat about his defeat, smiling even as he described what went wrong in the final race of the night. “It was a problem of strategy,” he said. “I spent a little bit too much time outside, I should have went to the front. It cost me some energy toward the end of the race.”
Whatever the reasons both skaters offered up, there’s no question the evening was a shocking disappointment to many Canadians. But the thing is, you wouldn’t have known it if you were in Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum tonight.
From the start the crowd was electric. Even though many seats were still empty during the first heat, the roar that erupted when Jean came in first exploded even louder when it was announced the Montreal resident had just set a new Olympic record at 2 minutes and 14.24 seconds. (It was a short-lived reign. Six minutes later Korea’s Lee shaved another couple of seconds off Jean’s record.)
But even when Hamelin raced for the last time with no hope whatsoever of a medal, the crowd was completely behind him. As he skated before the race, his eyes were downcast. Then when his name and country was announced, the stadium erupted once more. The moment seemed to catch Hamelin off guard. He lifted his head and smiled. For most of that race he trailed the pack, but with six laps to go he passed everyone. The deafening cheers as he crossed the finish line were by far the loudest of the night, even though it still meant seventh place for him. “You’d think he just won the gold,” a bemused American reporter said, shouting.
Hamelin knew the eyes of a nation were watching him. Was it unfair, he was asked at one point, for us to pile such immense hopes on his shoulders for this race? “No, I was one of the hopes for Canada,” he said. And he vowed to shake off his performance ahead of the 500m event, his strongest distance, in eleven days.
As for the crowd, Hamelin said they were incredible. “It doesn’t happen all that often for us to have a crowd cheering like this. It gives us some energy to make it.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.