Bonnie Blair repeats '88 feat

U.S. PUTS 1ST GOLD ON ICE

February 11, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Correspondent

ALBERTVILLE, France -- She is 27 years old, yet she is still the girl next door dressed up in red, white and blue.

With that flat Midwestern accent, with all the high-fives, and with all her family and friends in the stands, you'd think you were at some high school football game -- instead of the Winter Olympics.

As twilight dropped over the French Alps, with the temperature plunging from spring to winter, with a world watching, Bonnie Blair showed them all, showed them that no other woman can sprint across a patch of ice faster.

Yesterday, Blair made history and gave her U.S. team a jump start. She got the first U.S. medal of 1992 and also became the first U.S. woman to win gold medals in consecutive Winter Olympics. She repeated as the 500-meter speed skating champion with a race that wasn't her best -- but was good enough for gold.

"It takes all the pressure off," Blair said. "To win a gold medal back looks like a great accomplishment."

But this wasn't just about Blair or her family.

On the day the United States was reintroduced to its superstar ofwinter, 28-year-old Ye Qiaobo of China came roaring back from a doping scandal, back from nowhere, and became her country's first Winter Olympics' medalist, taking the silver. And when she told her story of how she missed the 1988 Calgary Games and returned in Albertville, she wept.

Sometimes the Winter Games resemble a television mini-series, all lights and cameras, and so little action.

But then, you get a moment like this:

Blair and 44 of her relatives and friends turning a speed skating oval in France into a slice of Americana, while Ye uses the stage for a personal triumph.

It played out perfectly.

There was Ye, putting up a time of 40.51, suffering from some bad luck when she lost her stride momentarily as Elena Tiouchniakova of the Unified Team refused to yield the right-of-way on a crossover.

Then came Christa Rothenburger Luding of Germany, the only other skater who could beat Blair, laying down a 40.57 to clinch the bronze.

And then everyone waited for Blair. There were the relatives and friends in the stands, the ones wearing the purple-and-white jackets and waving the U.S. flags. There were the other competitors, too, the ones who have been unable to beat her over 500 meters this season.

And Blair would tell you later that she was nervous. It's tough being Roger Clemens on skates, expected to win every start.

"I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before the race," she said. "I had my back rubbed, too."

Blair came rocketing out of the start, and it was over. The 100-meter split -- 10.71 -- was the fastest of the day. The final 400 was all show, a cruise to 40.33.

"Nothing is ever for sure," she said.

But Blair is as close to sure as the United States gets in the Winter Games. There was Eric Heiden before her in 1980 at Lake Placid. And Scott Hamilton and Dick Button were favorites who won gold medals, too. But somehow, the "sure things" for the United States melt on ice and snow. Just look at AJ Kitt, finishing ninth in the men's downhill. Or Duncan Kennedy, sliding to 10th in the luge. Or three teams tumbling from competition on the opening night of pairs figure skating.

"There have only been two days of competition," Blair said. "We have a long way to go. I've got two more races [the 1,500 and the 1,000]. It's just the beginning. Hopefully, we'll bring a lot more medals back to America."

Blair was composed on the medal stand, even when the Dutch fans serenaded her with "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean," even when the flag went up. But later, in a news conference, she dedicated the victory to her father, Charles, who died of lung cancer on Christmas night in 1990. It was the old man who put her on skates at age 2, who told her, even before she believed it, that she could be an Olympic champion.

"The medal goes to him," she said, tears welling in her eyes.

And then Blair left to celebrate with her family, and Ye came out and told her story. She talked of how she had missed the Calgary Games in 1988 when she was caught in a doping scandal a few weeks before at the World Speed Skating Championships in Milwaukee. She talked of a doctor giving her pills that put on weight. She cried when she recalled being told to leave Calgary and fly back to China.

"I wished for the plane to go down," she said. "What can I answer to my parents, to my family, to my sisters, to my friends."

She wanted to give up skating but decided to return to the ice.

"I'm old," she said. "Special friends told me, you are training hard, for more than 10 years. You really want to continue the skating. You want to try to tell everyone, you don't need doping to get to a world level."

You go back to Blair, go back to a champion sitting on top of a speed skating world.

"I gave it the best that I had," Blair said. "And that was going to have to be good enough. I'll take it."

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