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  Blair Sprints to Victory for Games' First U.S. Gold

By Angus Phillips
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 11, 1992; Page C1

ALBERTVILLE, Frace, Feb. 10 — As a horde of admirers from home roared their approval tonight, Bonnie Blair became the first American woman to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in speed skating.

Blair's easy triumph in the 500-meter sprints garnered the first U.S. medal of the two-day-old XVI Winter Olympics and mirrored her gold-medal run at the same distance in Calgary four years ago, when she also won a bronze at 1,000 meters.

But for all the rejoicing in the stands by 50 friends and relatives who'd flown across the sea to urge on Blair, she admitted it was not her best effort.

"I was not as relaxed and fluid as I like," said Blair, whose form deteriorated in the last 100 meters, "but it was good enough and I'll take it." Her eyes then brimmed with tears as she dedicated the race to her father, who died two years ago.

Blair's coach and even some rivals said the win by 18/100ths of a second on one of her rare off-days showed just how much better she is than anyone else in the sport today. Dutch skater Christine Aaftink, who was fifth, said she'd be surprised if Blair didn't prove just as unbeatable at 1,000 meters Friday.

Blair will be the favorite then, as she was tonight, after having won every one of her outings at 500 and 1,000 meters on the World Cup circuit this year.

Yet the delight at her success was diminished by Chinese skater Qiaobo Ye's bitter remorse after winning the silver medal.

Ye wept openly at the finish after she and Russian skater Elena Tiouchniakova nearly bumped during a crossover on the backstretch in their paired race. Ye guessed later she'd lost two-tenths of a second in the incident — which would have been just enough to bypass Blair for the gold.

But a request to race officials by Chinese team leaders to reskate on grounds Tiouchnikova was at fault was rejected, and Ye had to settle for second. "A pity," she said, evenly.

Later, Ye shed more copious and bitter tears in describing her 15-month banishment from international competition in 1988, which she said came as a result of illegal drugs given her without her knowledge and consent by a team doctor.

Ye said she was forced to drop out of the 1988 Games after testing positive for illegal drugs, apparently steroids, at a Milwaukee world sprint meet two weeks before the Calgary Games.

Ye's double dose of disappointment dampened the delirium of the crowd of Blair supporters who mobbed Section M of the grandstand at the Olympic Speedskating Oval, wearing matching purple and white Bonnie Blair windbreakers.

They decked the railings with Blair banners, including one that admonished, "Dear Aunt Bonnie, Go Fast, Love Brittany." The crowd, largely from Blair's home near Chicago, quickly won the title, "Da Blairs," after the similarly nicknamed Chicago football team.

At the heart of the crowd was Blair's smiling mom, Eleanor, who said the slow pace of today's race almost did her in. "I always hold my breath when Bonnie's racing," said the elder Blair of Champaign, Ill. "This time I nearly didn't make it."

Blair's time of 40.33 seconds was over a second off the 39.10 world record she skated at Calgary, which still stands. But the ice here, exposed to today's warm air and last night's snow and rain, was nowhere near as slick as the perfect indoor surface there, and racing was even delayed an hour to let the ice harden as the sun sank.

Even so, Blair proved slower than expected. Dan Jansen, the strong U.S. hope for gold in the men's 500 next week, was in the stands watching and said, "It wasn't Bonnie's best race. She had a good start, a good first 300 meters, but the last part wasn't as good as she has been.

"I'm sure she was tense," said Jansen, "she was under a lot of pressure, and the final times {between the top three finishers} were a lot closer than I thought they'd be. But don't get me wrong. She did win a gold."

Jansen said he figured Blair had victory in the bag when she went off in the sixth pairing with Angela Hauck. All her top rivals had raced by then, "and I knew Bonnie could skate a 40.5," said Jansen.

Both he and coach Peter Mueller said Blair's flawless technique and smooth cornering ability put her far ahead of the pack. "She's a head and a half above everybody else," said Jansen.

It wasn't always so. Four years ago, Blair had to skate the race of a lifetime to win at Calgary, chasing East German Christa Rothenburger's spectacular world record of 39.12 and eclipsing it by just two-hundredths of a second for the gold.

Rothenburger since has married, borne a baby, watched her nation dissolve and was back today as Christa Luding of a unified Germany. To Blair's delight, Luding skated one of her best races in recent years to take the bronze medal in 40.57 seconds.

That put Blair, Ye and Luding on the stand for a tearful, happy medal ceremony. As Dutch fans belted out their standard paean to the greatest speed skater of her time, "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean," Blair dragged her two colleagues up on the highest platform with her and hugged them hard.

Off in the stands, "Da Blairs" let out a roar.

© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company

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