Opinion | Costly mistake leaves Canada off the podium in frantic final of inaugural short-track speedskating mixed team relay

BEIJING Frantic. Frenzied. Frantic. And a bunch of F-bombs we can’t get in the paper.

But at the end of the chaotic and inaugural short-track speedskating mixed team relay Saturday night, Canada came away with zippo.

Four teams made a final that didn’t include No. 2-ranked Netherlands or short-track gold-gaudy South Korea. And still the Canadians — with the best times in the quarters and semis, earning the prized inside lane — muffed it, the only medal-less country from among those that had remained for the 18-lap event at the Capital Indoor Stadium.

China, among the heavily favored from a dozen countries that contested the event, claimed its first gold medal of the Beijing Games, which sent a small but noisy contingent of fans over the waxing crescent moon.

There was a bit of foreboding, perhaps ominous in retrospect, when Canada’s Florence Brunelle ran into an Italian skater out of the chute and officials called for a restart of the A final. But the Canadian squad was sitting second at the midway point exchange, coming out of the first corner, when the 18-year-old Brunelle collided with Hungary’s Petra Jászapáti, both women sprawling and skidding across the ice. Each got up and continued, because that’s how short-track rolls, and Canada crossed the finish line with an apparent bronze under their belt.

They looked leary, however, not quite celebrating the moment, huddled together. And, indeed, Canada would be penalized upon video review — disqualified the more appropriate term — with Brunelle fingered for “pushing from behind,” as the Hungarians gratefully gathered together their podium laurels. Italy finished second, by 0.016 seconds, or about the length of half a skate blade, as formidable veteran Arianna Fontana became the only short-track speedskater, male or female, to earn nine Olympic medals.

Brunelle hastened through the mixed zone afterward, not even her ponytail bobbing anymore, ignoring the come-hither pleadings of reporters.

“It’s short-track,” shrugged Kim Boutin, as she stopped to address the disappointment of the messy finish. “In short track, when you do a mistake it will cost you the race.”

Boutin, very much the pith of this Canadian cadre, had offered Brunelle solace, along with the other team members who had participated in the mixed relay through its stages: Courtney Sarault, Steven Dubois, Jordan Pierre-Gilles, Pascal Dion. The 2,000-meter race goes woman, woman, man, man, woman, woman, man, man.

“She’s young,” Boutin said, referring to Brunelle. “For sure she’s going to learn from that. We’re all going to learn from it.”

They should have stayed calmer, Boutin observed, more assured on the fatal exchange rather than aggressive. “She tried to pass (the Hungarian) by the inside, she brushed her blade and they both fell. It’s a mistake. With the stress, anything can happen.”

They were still trying to figure out the best order for their skaters in the mixed relay, Boutin said. “It’s less experience in this distance. We don’t really know what’s the best chemistry we can have for Canada. In short-track, we always know that one mistake can cook the race.”

Stunningly — or maybe not so stunningly because, one more time, this is short-track — a couple of the field’s bigger batteries had disqualified themselves out of the loop. The Koreans, world record holders in the event, met with disaster in the quarterfinal, wiping out just before the last changeover. The Netherlands got a gob-smacking misplay from Suzanne Schulting, about an hour after she set a new Olympic record in the 500-meter heats. when she lost her balance despite nobody being within a foot of her, and the Dutch didn’t survive the semifinal.

And the Chinese only progressed by the skin of their teeth, third behind Hungary and the United States in their semi. Officials huddled for five minutes before disqualifying Russia for obstructing and the US for blocking.

There were more positive Canadian outcomes in the other races contested Saturday evening inside a venue that was actually China’s first indoor ice arena when it opened in 1968.

Dion and Pierre-Gilles qualified easily in the men’s 1,000-meter heats. Boutin, after causing a false start, breezed through the women’s 500-meter heat at 42,732. Also qualifying from Canada were Brunelle and Alyson Charles, who was in Schulting’s Olympic record heat. “It was a really fast start,” said Charles, who was making her Olympics debut. “I was pretty in stress going to the line but it was a controlled stress. I’m glad my first race is behind me now and I will be a lot more relaxed for the ones to come.”

Boutin is the world record holder in the 500 meters — 41.936, set in November, 2019 — and the reigning Olympic bronze medalist.

“It was a nice start. I’m always not that fast for the first race. It’s always getting to know where my blades are. I feel like I fixed it for the relay and now for sure I’m going to be really there for the next round.”

All three Canadian women will be in the same bracket for the Monday quarterfinals.

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno


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