Disaster often strikes when you least expect it, at the last hurdle when you thought that things were pretty well done and dusted, all in order, in the bag and certain…
Late on Tuesday evening (Continental European Time) hundreds of thousands if not millions of Dutch citizens sat in front of their TV’s to watch and cheer on one of our national sporting hero’s skating at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics: 23 year old Sven Kramer.
He’s at the top of his form, already has one Gold medal under his belt for the 5,000 meters in the last week and was hot tipped for a hat-trick in all the long distance speed skating events.
The 5,000 meter race draw, saw him unusually skate in one of the middle pairs of the line-up, instead of as one of the last racers, and many wondered how he would plan his race.
He came onto the ice it was soon abundantly clear: he set such a blistering time that the competitors after him burned themselves out trying to match it.
In the 10,000 meters he was in the last pair to skate. He’s been unbeaten over 10,000 meters for the past 3 years and even his opposition were admitting that this race was his… he deserved it. Sadly no matter how well you prepare and how fast you go, it doesn’t always go as you’d expect.
Speed skating is a very fine art of speed, balance, co-ordination, strength, stamina and concentration. Competitors compete in pairs, but over-all, all of the competitors are racing the clock. The clock is your Nemesis, the foe that has to be beaten. The other person on the track is just the rabbit to chase, or be chased.
Laps are alternated and skaters take turns at having and “inside” lane and and “outside” lane, but there are always certain parts of the track where both skaters will be in the same lane whilst the cross-over takes place. Especially in longer distances, the job of the coach is to let the skater know which lane he should be in, which lap they are at, lap times etc.
The Skater can then concentrate on skating fast, very very fast, aiming in Sven’s case to make a new Olympic Record and hopefully without any high speed spills.
So what happened Tueday evening? well, two-thirds of the way though the race, Sven’s coach made an error, he called Sven into an inside lane when he should have called him into an outside one.
Sven was so concentrated that he didn’t realise that he was in the wrong place, but he knew that the atmosphere inside the stadium had changed. The massive band of fanatical Dutch supporters knew that Sven was disqualified, long before Sven knew it.
Race officials never stop speed skating races mid way, they only flash the dreaded “DS” sign for disqualification onto the board at the end of the race. This is because there are two skaters on the ice and both are racing the clock so to pull one of them and leave the other with no-one to chase would be unfair.
So imagine how you would feel if you saw that you had made a new Olympic Record time of 12 minutes 54.50 seconds as you crossed the finish line… you’d think you’d won a Gold medal.
Sven thought that. He was wrong.
Korean skater Lee Seung-Hoon took a surprise Gold in 12:58.55, also by Skating an Olympic record, with Sven’s Russian skating companion in the final pair (Ivan Skobrev) taking Silver. Fellow Dutchman Bob de Jong therefore tipped in from what would have been 4th place to win the Bronze.
Imagine the devastation of finding out that a mistake on the part of someone else cost you a Gold medal… even the Russian admitted that Sven surely deserved it better than anyone. But as in any sport, rules are rules, in speed-skating you cross the line in the wrong place, or are in the wrong lane at the wrong time and it’s all over.
I’m certain that no-one can feel worse than Sven’s coach, Gerard Kemkers. If you realised how high a profile Speed Skating has in the Netherlands, it would come as no surprise that there was only one real topic on Dutch News today… it’s Headline news with a capital “H” in all the media.
As I type this in my Wednesday lunchtime, I take away from this that even when you’ve worked hard, things seem to be going your way and you really really deserve a reward for all the blood sweat and tears, that Life sometimes derails our train and the good stuff simply doesn’t come to pass.
Is it fair? No. Is that the way Life sometimes just “is“?. Yes.
Your Gold medal is what you strive for, it’s your goal and your dream, your ambition and your hopes. But sometimes Life isn’t fair, sometimes a technicality, or a very trivial mistake can make all the difference in the world.
We get the cards we are dealt, some of them are great and some of them are pretty lousy. I think that often “Character” is the result of dealing with Life when it isn’t fair to you. Your reaction to life’s unfairness can shape you for the following hours, days, years or decades.
Shape you both positively or negatively if you let it. The trick is getting up, seizing the day and going out to the next race.
I took some photos of him on our TV (yes, fuzzy photos sorry, since it’s still the 17 year old, 30 inch analogue TV that we can’t bear to ditch since it’s still running fine) as Sven was interviewed today, he was asked how he felt about his Coach and about what happened. He basically said: “you can’t go back… Gerard Kemkers helped me to become world champion three times, so we had a long private talk and it’s behind us…” Certainly Sven knows that it was nothing malicious, just one of those unexplained little accidents in life when a small chain of events simply goes wrong.
Sven still has another race yet to race at this Olympics, Lets see if he can put this behind him and show us what he’s really made of, …both as a skater and on a personal level.
And if he can do that, then maybe he can inspire us all.
One thing is for certain, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Dutch citizens will be cheering him on.