Timing error gives, then takes away gold from Dutch skater

Timing error gives, then takes away gold from Dutch skater

SOCHI, Russia – For about five seconds on Monday, Jan Smeekens was Olympic champion, hero to a nation, and all that goes with it. Until, gut-wrenchingly, he wasn't.

As Smeekens crossed the line at Adler Arena in the men's 500-meter long-track speedskating and glanced up at the clock, it was the fulfillment of all his dreams.

The scoreboard carried a "1" next to his name, and that was enough for Smeekens, a 26-year-old from the Netherlands, to throw his arms in the air and bellow out a scream of pure delight.

And then it all changed.

In the moment it took for Smeekens to enter the back straight and embrace his coach, the scoreboard shifted, announcing his Dutch teammate Michel Mulder as the Olympic champion instead.

A timing error had occurred and almost immediately was corrected. The issue: the scoreboard shows only two decimal points, so when Smeekens crossed the line his combined time read 69.31, same as Mulder's. However, the actual scoring is based on thousandths of a second. Mulder's times (34.634 and 34.678) totaled 69.312 to Smeekens' (34.599 and 34.725) 69.324.

[Related: Mulder twins lead another Dutch speedskating sweep]

In this sport where thousandths of a second can mean the difference between glory and disaster – Mulder's combined time was 1/100 faster than Smeekens – it was enough to alter the outcome and leave Smeekens crushed.

"It is a kick in the gut," Smeekens said, his voice cracking. "I was so ecstatic to have the feeling that you won – and then you don't. It is overwhelming. I can't describe it."

Victory by miniscule distances is nothing new in the Olympics, either in summer or winter. But we have rarely seen something quite like the emotional wrench that befell Smeekens, a serious character compared to his two colleagues on the podium – Mulder's brother Ronald completed the clean sweep with a bronze.

The 500m event involves two races separated by about an hour and combines each skater's times from both races. The lowest aggregate time wins. With the counting going down first to hundredths of a second and then thousandths in the case of a tie, it is complicated and, apparently, mistakes can happen.

Except that they shouldn't and usually don't.

This is the Olympics where the local security surveillance system can check out anyone's text messages and online chats, so coming up with a computer that can add to three decimal points shouldn't be asking too much.

[Related: Canadian speedskating couple turns in another iconic kiss after gold medal win]

Smeekens appealed the decision but was rebuffed within two minutes by American referee Daniel Immerfall, who told the Dutch skater that he had actually lost by 0.12 of a second over the two races combined, or about three inches.

The brief window of time when Smeekens thought he was the victor will surely torture him forever. He was aghast when the realization hit home, unable to believe the cruelty of the situation.

From carrying a beaming smile one moment, his head buried in his hands the next. To Smeekens' great credit he went immediately to the Mulder brothers to celebrate with them. They shared a hug and were applauded together by the large and noisy contingent of Dutch fans. But before long Smeekens was inconsolable again, shaking his head and cursing his luck.

"When he crossed the line I thought we were equal on time and then I saw a "1" next to his name," Michel Mulder said. "This kind of closeness is what makes the sport exciting, but it is tough on him."

[Related: Aussie's Olympic debut ends seconds after it starts]

The Netherlands is apparently a country full of long limbed giants blessed with impossible speed on a pair of skates. This 1-2-3 finish followed another in the men's 10,000 on Saturday, meaning that in those two events alone the Dutch had outstripped the United States' entire haul for the Games in all sports as of Monday night.

For the U.S., Shani Davis came in 24th in a distance unsuited to him, with Tucker Fredericks in 26th and Mitchell Whitmore 27th.

But this was one those nights that rightly or wrongly, will be remembered for the guy who didn't win as much as the one that did.

"I have never seen something like this in my entire career and I don't think we will ever see it again," Smeekens said.

Let us hope not.

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