By Neil Leverett
- Briton Christie strong medal contender in both the 500m, 1000m and 1500m short-track speed skating
- 27-year-old from Edinburgh current world champion in both the 1000 and 1500m
- XXIII Olympic Winter Games begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea on February 9
PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – With the 2018 Winter Games now just days away, in the first of a series of close-ups on some of Team GB’s brightest medal hopes in South Korea, we focus first on Elise Christie, the Scottish short-track speed skater who four years after Sochi heartbreak on the ice in Russia, returns to Olympic competition a world champion in her own right, looking to firmly exorcise the demons of her past.
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Christie looking to avenge Sochi heartache
Sport in any form can be a cruel mistress. Be it with a ball, a bat, or indeed partaken on foot. The margins can be fine indeed. Great Britain’s short-track speed skater Elise Christie knows this all too well.
Coming into the Sochi games in Russia four years ago, the-then 23-year-old Scot was bronze medalist from the World Championships in Hungary and World Cup champion for the previous season in the 1000m. There were realistic hopes for a first British medal in the event since Nicky Gooch finished third in the 500m in Lillehammer, Norway two decades prior.
In her second Games after competing in Vancouver in 2010, many thought the time was right for the Brit to rise to the top of her sport, but fate was set to deal a cruel hand that even the most masochistic of script-writers would have struggled to create.
For what was supposed to be Christie’s weaker event, she qualified through the heats of the 500m into the semi-finals which she then won progressing through to the A Final.
The biggest draw for the shorter of the speed skating events is heavily reliant on its’ hugely unpredictable nature, as Steven Bradbury will attest to from Salt Lake City in 2002.
The Australian became the unlikeliest of Olympic Champions in the men’s 1000m, when at the back of the pack in fifth spot and set to finish outside the medals on the final bend of a typically fiercely-fought contest, saw American Apolo Anton Ohno, Canadian Mathieu Turcotte, South Korean Ahn Hyun-Soo and the Chinese skater Li Jiajun all crash into one another. As the pack slid to the barriers, Bradbury rolled in across the line to the astonishment of all that watched to win a remarkable gold medal.
Short-track is perhaps one of the cruelest events in sport, in that despite the best intentions of all competitors – even when a race is finished and seemingly won, the final outcome is down to the race commissaires.
Christie is all-too aware of the sword of damocles that hangs over a race involving a crash in the pack. It is then up to the judgment of the the officials to hand down the final verdict.
For the Nottingham-based skater, taking the aggressive inside lane approach had always been her mantra and seemed to have paid handsome dividends in coming home in second place – with silver – after both Italian skater Arianna Fontana and South Korean Park Seung-Hi had fallen early in the race, involved in an incident with the Briton on a tight turn (above).
Christie after falling also, had reacted fastest to the crash and skated away from the pack as the Chinese Li Jianrou was left with a clear run at the Olympic title.
In the fall-out from the race however, both Fontana and Park had protested that the Brit had taken an unfair racing line and had impeded both competitors by cutting inside. Indeed, the judges agreed and disqualified a heart-broken Briton from the race and after being demoted also, finished eighth below the B final racers also.
The judges’ hand
It was a brutal blow – never the mind the wave of vitriol from Korean fans on social media that came her way – but with two races to go there was still ample opportunity to right the wrongs.
After winning her heat of the 1500m, all seemed well for Christie, but when the final result came up on the board, Christie had again been penalised, this time for failing to cross the finish line – by 1cm. After a strong appeal from the British team, the decision was made final. It was almost too much to bare to even watch.
The superstition of ‘third time lucky’ may not have bared weight in the mind of the fallen Brit, but as the defending world cup champion, that pieces were surely set to fall in an now visibly nerve-wracked Christie.
After negotiating the quarter-finals, her semi-final however was to again bring further grief, as the greek tragedy told its final act. With the Briton in pole-position to reach the final, again controversy interjected as Li – the winner in the 500m days earlier – slid out after it was adjudged Christie had again broken rules of competition.
For a remarkable third time in three races, she has been demoted out of the running in scarcely believable events and left a visibly broken women. Through adversity however, Christie has now risen through tears and trauma to become the best in the world with a happier Olympic story on the horizon.
Chance for Golden retribution in South Korea
At both 1000 and 1500m at last year’s World Chmapionships in Rotterdam, the Briton claimed gold to become the first British athlete to win a speed skating world title.
After such a torturous experience in Russia four years ago, the Scot seems a more mature individual and above all a happier competitor – not least having achieved her dreams of silverware at the highest level.
It should be noted also, that despite once again being a strong medal hope for a British team targeting a best-ever Winter Olympic haul, the prospect of further frustration at the hands of a judges call, whilst being a reality still, puts her in good stead ahead of the Pyeongchang games.
Christie’s biggest opponent other then the mental battle in South Korea, may well be the vociferous and likely partisan home fans in an event with massive following in Asia.
The same fans that hounded the Brit in Sochi for her involvement with Park’s crash, may turn their attention to her once more on home territory, aware she is the woman to beat on the track.
Sport, whilst littered with heart-warming tales of pain, tears but eventual joy, but it also has a uncanny habit of shattering dreams of many a competitor in a litany of competition across the landscape.
After a tale of sorrow for Christie last time out however, her most glorious comeback could be coming into view on the very near horizon.
Short-track speed skating in Pyeongchang takes places between the 10th and 22nd of February at the Gangneung Ice Arena.
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