U.S. Sochi Speedskating Debacle

SOCHI, Russia – Zbigniew Brodka knocked off Shani Davis and all the other big names in the men’s 1,500 meters, capturing Poland’s first gold medal in Olympic speedskating Feb. 15.

Brodka won the closest 1,500 in Olympic history over Koen Verweij of the Netherlands, who skated in the final pair. The two were initially shown on the scoreboard as tied for the top spot, but when the time was broken down to the thousandths, the victory went to Brodka.

His time was 1 minute, 45.006 seconds. Verweij settled for silver in 1:45.009.

Brodka, who had skated in the 17th of 20 pairs, thrust his arms in the air when he saw the “1” appear beside his name — the first major victory of his career. Verweij appeared to scream an expletive and glided around the inside of the track, shaking his head in disbelief, his long blond hair flowing behind him. Even during the flower ceremony, he found it hard to muster a smile, despite giving the Dutch their record-tying 13th medal of these games.

The bronze went to Canada’s Denny Morrison, his second medal in Sochi.

The 29-year-old Brodka is a firefighter and former short track skater who placed 27th in the 1,500 at the Vancouver Games four years ago. Though he had put up solid World Cup results in recent months, he had never won a major international event and there was little to indicate he would break through in Sochi.

Now, he’s got the biggest prize of all.

It was another tough day for two-time silver medalist Davis and the rest of the American team, who hastily went through a suit change because of concerns their new high-tech attire was actually slowing them down.

The U.S. got approval to switch back to the suits it wore during a successful World Cup season in the fall, but it sure didn’t help. Brian Hansen of Glenview, Ill., was the top U.S. finisher in seventh.

The 31-year-old Davis, runner-up in the king of races at the last two Olympics, faded badly over the final lap. The Chicago native wound up 11th in what could be the final individual event of his brilliant Olympic career. The only race he has left in Sochi is team pursuit.

“I feel the damage of the suit was already done,” Davis said, clearly blaming the turmoil for the team’s dismal showing at these Olympics. “It took its toll. I spent energy in ways that I wouldn’t have done normally.”

Defending Olympic champion Mark Tuitert of the Netherlands briefly claimed the top spot on the scoreboard before sinking to fifth. Russia’s Denis Yuskov just missed a medal, winding up 0.15 behind Morrison’s time of 1:45.22.

It was a surreal day for the Americans, who arrived in Sochi touting their new Under Armour Mach 39 suit as the fastest in the world, only to begin having doubts about its effectiveness just a few days into the competition.

After some adjustments that didn’t make much of an impact, the U.S. petitioned the International Skating Union to go back to its previous suit, worn at World Cup meets and the country’s Olympic trials in late December. The ISU didn’t sign off on the suits until some hasty alterations that were still going on just hours before the race, reducing the size of the company’s logo to conform to Olympic rules.

No one could blame the suits for the latest debacle. Joey Mantia of Ocala, Fla., finished 22nd and Jonathan Kuck of Champaign, Ill., was 37th out of 40 skaters.

The Americans, it would seem, simply weren’t prepared to compete at the level being shown by other countries, especially the Dutch. The Netherlands now has as many speedskating medals as East Germany’s haul at the 1988 Calgary Games, with five more events to crush the previous record.

(PAUL NEWBERRY, AP National Writer)