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Friday, January 25, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Olympics

Ohno cleared of fixing U.S. Trials

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Seattle's Apolo Anton Ohno, a quadruple-medal threat at next month's Salt Lake Winter Olympics, skated out of trouble yesterday as charges that he fixed a qualifying race to help a friend earn an Olympic berth were dismissed.

Short-track speedskater Ohno and teammate Rusty Smith were accused by a former teammate, Olympic veteran Tommy O'Hare, of fixing a race at last month's U.S. Olympic Trials.

O'Hare said Ohno and Smith conspired to rig the men's 1,000-meter finals, assuring that their friend, Shani Davis, would win the heat, thereby earning the eighth and final spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

Davis won the four-man heat, becoming the first African-American skater to qualify for a U.S. Olympic speedskating team — and bumping O'Hare from the squad. Smith finished second. Ohno, one of the world's top skaters and by far the class of the field, finished third — holding back, he said, to prevent a pre-Olympic injury.

Was Ohno just playing it safe in a fast, dangerous sport where racers zip around a tiny track that fits inside a hockey rink, or was he fixing the outcome of a race?

O'Hare, a Nagano Olympic veteran bumped from the team by Davis, insisted on the latter. Even though he wasn't in the contested race, he hired an attorney and filed a grievance, seeking to have Ohno and Smith removed from the team. Later, the fourth skater in the heat, Ron Biondo, publicly supported O'Hare's claim.

After three days locked in a Colorado Springs hearing room with the skaters, their attorneys and an arbitrator, O'Hare yesterday agreed to withdraw his charges.

Reason: "There is no proof of any wrongdoing," said Fred Benjamin, president of U.S. Speedskating, the sport's governing body.

O'Hare and several teammates had asserted in affidavits that they actually heard Ohno and Smith conspiring to "get" O'Hare by fixing the race. But in his findings, James Holbrook said that testimony was discredited during the hearing.

"Some statements contained in affidavits submitted in this proceeding were admittedly inaccurate," Holbrook wrote. "The evidence ... does not support any finding that the race was fixed."

O'Hare had no choice but to fold, said Benjamin, an attorney with 35 years of litigation experience.

"Every one of those statements was neutralized on the stand," he said.

Even as O'Hare's case was being shredded in the hearing, however, the accusatory affidavits were being leaked to newspapers, which used them as the basis for stories yesterday detailing Ohno's supposed skullduggery. The Denver Post, reporting that three former teammates, a referee and an assistant coach had lined up against Ohno, suggested that the matter would become "one of the most notorious scandals in U.S. Olympic history" if the charges were upheld.

Not quite.

In his report, the arbitrator did note that the race referee "observed irregularities" in the race and claimed to be powerless to do anything. But the rules indicate that he could have restarted or rerun the race. And the referee and all four of his assistants officially certified the race after it was over, the arbitrator noted.

"I am thrilled that the arbitration process has officially vindicated me," Ohno said in a release. "As I've said since the moment of these accusations, they were untrue and I did nothing wrong."

He added that he's now "completely focused on winning gold for the U.S. in Salt Lake next month." Ohno, last year's overall World Cup champion, is a medal favorite in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters, as well as the team relay.

Ohno's father, Yuki Ohno of Seattle, was infuriated by the charges, suggesting they amounted to petty jealousy of Ohno — a child phenom in the sport who has grown into its first U.S. superstar.

"It just gets dirtier and dirtier," he said.

Most of the skaters supporting O'Hare's claims were next in line if Ohno and Smith were kicked off the team, he noted.

With the Games' Opening Ceremonies only two weeks away, speedskating officials were glad to put the matter behind them.

"We can get back down to business," said Jack Mortell, the U.S. team leader for the Games. "A load has been lifted off our team."

The race-fixing charges were dismissed by the arbitrator "with prejudice," meaning O'Hare has little recourse to appeal. That should prevent a legal challenge like the spate of last-minute lawsuits filed over spots on the 2000 Sydney Olympic team. One case involving two wrestlers went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The final U.S. Olympic squad will be certified by the U.S. Olympic Committee on Monday.

Ron C. Judd can be reached at 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com.

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