SOCHI, Russia — Were you the type to gamble on Olympic women’s speedskating — and really, who isn’t? — you could have plunked down 20 bucks on South Korea’s Lee Sang-hwa in the women’s 500 meters Tuesday afternoon at the Web site oddschecker.com, and when she won the gold medal that evening at the Adler Arena Skating Center, you would have earned yourself a whopping profit of one whole dollar (minus the “vig,” of course).
If you find odds of 1-to-20 to be a bit unsporting, well, imagine what it is like to go blade-to-blade with Lee in an international competition. Entering Tuesday’s final in Sochi, the 24-year-old hadn’t lost a 500-meter race in more than a year, and she routinely wins major events by a half-second or more — an eternity at this distance, where the best skaters finish their heats in less than 38 seconds.
Margot Boer, a top competitor for the Netherlands, seemed to be speaking for the entire field when she said on the eve of Tuesday’s race: “There is just one way to beat Lee, and that is if she makes mistakes on the ice. I am going to skate one of the best races of my life and . . . I am going to take a medal. There are two medal places on the podium after Lee’s gold.”
It was little surprise, then, when Lee indeed claimed the gold medal Tuesday, setting Olympic records in the process for both a single heat (37.28 seconds in the second heat) and total two-heat time (74.70 seconds) — but falling short of breaking the world record (36.36 seconds) for the fourth time this season.
It was also no surprise that the two medalists flanking her on the medal stand — Russia’s Olga Fatkulina (silver) and Boer (bronze) — were more emotional than the woman who had beaten them.
Fatkulina and Boer won Olympic medals; Lee merely didn’t lose one.
“I can’t believe I am standing next to Lee on the podium. She is so good,” Boer gushed later. “It feels like I won gold.”
What Lee is doing in women’s speedskating, at least in the 500-meter sprint (she also competes sometimes in the 1,000 meters, but doesn’t always win) is the same thing Usain Bolt has done in track the past half-dozen years, the same thing Paavo Nurmi did in distance running in the 1920s, the same thing Mark Spitz and later Michael Phelps did in swimming, the same thing Eric Heiden did in men’s speedskating (both the sprint events and the distance ones) in the late 1970s and early 1980s: redefine the outer limits of possibility for one’s sport.
“It’s amazing,” said American speedskater Brittany Bowe, who finished in 13th place. “She’s hitting times that the middle-of-the-pack in men’s events are hitting. A year or two ago, those times would have been unthinkable.”
Lee, a native of Seoul, made her Olympic debut as a 16-year-old in the 2006 Turin Olympics, finishing fifth in the 500 meters. Her first World Cup-level victory came at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where she took the gold by a mere 0.05 seconds over Germany’s Jenny Wolf.
But Lee was still beatable in those days. By around the start of 2013, she no longer was. Her last loss came in January of that year, and in the current World Cup season, which began in the fall, she is seven for seven, breaking her own world record three times along the way and completely redefining the sport.
“Lee is amazing,” said Heather Richardson, who was the top U.S. medal hope Tuesday but finished eighth, falling short in her quest to become the first American woman to medal in the 500 meters since Bonnie Blair won the last of her three golds in 1994.
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When Lee won gold in Vancouver at 20, her time in her first heat was 38.249. Her most recent world record, set in a World Cup event in Salt Lake City in November, was almost two full seconds faster. Along the way, she has managed to drag the rest of the sport nearly — but not all the way — to her level. Consider that the 38.249 she posted in Vancouver would have only been good enough for the ninth-best opening heat Tuesday.
Lee’s reaction after Tuesday’s win looked more like relief and satisfaction than unbridled joy. After her winning time was posted, she was handed a South Korean flag, but as she circled the track slowly she held the flag at her side and waved her hand sheepishly at a hundred or so of her countrymen in the stands.
“During Vancouver, nobody expected that I could win,” Lee said later, casting her latest win as more of a moral victory than an outright one. “I didn’t want to be a one-time phenomenon so I practiced strenuously. I didn’t want to hear that phrase.”
Almost inevitably, a dominant, runaway force in a given sport lasts only so long. The rest of the world eventually catches up, and perhaps that is already happening with Lee.
“She is the Usain Bolt of speedskating,” said Russia’s Fatkulina, whose opening heat was only 0.15 seconds slower than Lee’s, “but she doesn’t seem [as] unreachable as she did before.”