SOCHI, RUSSIA – One of the closest races in Olympic speedskating history came down to a final lunge of the skate — then a few more agonizing seconds to figure out who won.
Zbigniew Brodka knocked off all the favorites in the 1,500 meters Saturday, capturing Poland’s first gold medal in Olympic speedskating by a mere three-thousandths of a second over Koen Verweij of the Netherlands.
Shani Davis? He wasn’t even close.
Verweij skated in the final pair and powered toward the line, trying desperately to knock off Brodka’s time in a race that requires both endurance and a sprinter’s speed.
At first, Brodka and Verweij were shown with the same time, broken down to hundredths of a second. But the scoring system in speedskating can take times to the thousandths if necessary, and that proved to be the difference.
Brodka finished in 1 minute, 45.006 seconds. Verweij settled for silver in 1:45.009.
It was the closest 1,500 since a dead heat in 1960, but that was when times only were broken down to tenths of a second.
“I said to myself, ‘These are the Olympics and I have to push right up to the line,’ ” the winner said. “Every thousands of a second will be counted.”
Brodka, who had skated in the 17th of 20 pairs, watched anxiously from the infield as the times were calculated. He thrust his arms in the air when he saw the “1” stay beside his name — the first major victory of his career.
When the “1” next to Verweij’s name switched to a “2,” he appeared to scream an expletive and shook his head in disbelief, his long blond hair flowing behind him as he glided around the track. Even during the flower ceremony, he found it hard to muster a smile, despite giving the Dutch their record-tying 13th medal of these games.
The Netherlands has five more events to blow by the mark set by East Germany’s speedskating team at the 1988 Calgary Games.
Not that it made Verweij feel any better.
“Silver is losing,” he said. “It is in very small things that I could have made the difference. It happened. I cannot get those thousands back.”
On the podium, Brodka exchanged a few words with the silver medalist.
“I told Koen I am sorry, but this is sports,” Brodka said. “There should only be one Olympic champion. Even if I would have lost, there should only be one winner.”
The bronze went to Canada’s Denny Morrison, his second medal in Sochi.
The 29-year-old Brodka is a firefighter and former short-track skater who placed 27th in the 1,500 at the Vancouver Games four years ago. Though he had put up solid World Cup results in recent months, he had never won a major international event and there was little to indicate he would break through in Sochi.
“When I conquered Shani Davis, I realized that I might step up on the podium,” Brodka said.
The 31-year-old Davis, runnerup in the 1,500 at the last two Olympics, faded badly over the final lap. The Chicago native wound up 11th in what could be the final individual event of his brilliant Olympic career.
If this was the end, it was a dismal way to go out.
Davis and the Americans were caught up in a debate over the high-tech suits they had never worn in competition, finally leading the team to hastily switch back to the suits they had worn before at the country’s Olympic trials and on the World Cup circuit.
The change didn’t help. Davis was 11th, nearly a full second off the winner’s time.