When François Hamelin exited the ice at Sochi’s Iceberg Skating Palace it was hard to tell if the water running down his cheeks was sweat or tears. But chances are it was a mixture of both.
Just before the halfway mark of the men’s 5000m short track relay—an an Olympic roller derby where 20 skaters trade off for 45 laps, hitting speeds of more than 50km/hr—the 27-year-old from Sainte-Julie, Quebec stepped on track marker and fell, sliding heavily into the padded boards. A teammate quickly tagged him and took over, but by then, the Russian, Chinese and Italians had opened up a gap of close to a lap. A lung-busting effort from Hamelin, his older brother Charles, Olivier Jean, Michael Gilday and Charle Cournoyer, managed to make up only about half the deficit, and Canada—the defending Olympic and World champs—finished fourth, failing to advance to the finals.
A few minutes later, François, red-eyed and subdued, came out to face the media. There were no excuses, only an apology. “It’s me who lost the medal. I took a medal from Canada. A gold medal potentially,” he said. “I feel…” The sentence just trailed off. No words sufficed to describe his disappointment. For François, a member of the 2010 gold winning team along with his brother, the Sochi Games are now over.
Charles, who topped the podium in the 1500 metres on Monday, and today advanced to the quarterfinals of the 1000m—another race he is favoured to win, was more philosophical. “In short track you live the good and the bad moments,” he said. “Yes, Frank fell, but the blame doesn’t go on Frank. We win as a team and we lose as a team.”
Gilday, a 27-year-old from Yellowknife, said falling is simply part of the sport. The team trains for such eventuality, working out in advance how many extra-effort laps each member will do if someone goes down. It happened in November at a World Cup event and the Canadian men managed to claw their way back into the relay, but that was earlier in the race. In Sochi, they just ran out of time.
Canada wasn’t the only nation facing short track disappointment Thursday. In the other relay semi-final, Korea, who won silver in Vancouver, fell and took out the Americans, providing Kazakhstan and the Netherlands an easy glide to the medal race. (Officials later judged the Koreans to be at fault and advanced the US as well, meaning their will be five teams and 25 skaters in the Feb 21. final.) And the women’s 500m medal race was also a crash-fest. Elise Christie of the UK went down taking down Seung-Hi Park of Korea and Arianna Fontana of Italy. And Jianrou Li of China, the only skater to remain on her feet, cruised to any easy gold.
Marianne St. Gelais, who won a silver in the 500m in Vancouver, finished eighth overall. “I have other chances,” she said, when asked if she was disappointed. “In Vancouver I had the 500m and the relay and that was it. Here I have the 1000m and 1500m still coming.”
Olivier Jean and Charle Cournoyer also advanced in the 1000m, and will join Charles Hamelin in the quarter finals on Saturday.