Oops! From Buckner to Webber, Sven Kramer has plenty of company in sports hall of shame

By Paul Newberry, AP
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sven Kramer has plenty of company in gaffe hall

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — If there’s anyone who can relate to what Sven Kramer is going through, it’s Eddie Hart.

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, Hart was one of the favorites in the most glamorous track and field event, the 100 meters. Only one problem — his coach had the wrong schedule for the quarterfinal heats, and Hart was disqualified when he didn’t show up to the stadium on time.

“I had to pull myself together, but it was tough, it was painful,” Hart told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday. “It was kind of like losing a child. You’ve nurtured it, cared for it, sacrificed for it, done everything possible to take care of that child — and in an instant, it’s gone.”

A day earlier, Kramer was shockingly disqualified from the 10,000-meter speedskating race at the Vancouver Winter Games after his coach sent him to the wrong lane during what should have been a routine changeover at the end of the back straightaway.

Not knowing his fate, Kramer went on to finish the grueling race more than 4 seconds faster than anyone else. Shortly after he crossed the line, he learned it was all for naught.

If it’s any consolation, Kramer has plenty of company in the hall of shame.

From Jean van de Velde to Bill Buckner, sports is filled with folks who flopped on the biggest stages, who threw away years of training with the simplest of mistakes.

Like Hart, Kramer gets a bit of a pass because his coach, Gerard Kemkers, was the one who messed up. Then again, Kramer conceded that it was ultimately his responsibility to make sure he was in the right lane.

“These things happen to the best,” said Kramer, whose gaffe gave gold to South Korea’s Lee Seung-hoon. “It can happen to amateurs and professionals.”

You don’t have to tell that to Hart, who’s now 60 but still feels guided by the lessons he learned from his Olympic debacle. He was the world-record holder and went into Munich as one of the favorites in the 100 meters along with teammate Reynaud Robinson.

Their coach, Stan Wright, unwittingly used an outdated schedule to determine the start time for the quarterfinals. Hart actually realized there might be a mistake while in his room at the Olympic village, but Wright insisted that he had the correct time.

Still, the coach and his two star sprinters headed for the stadium just to be on the safe side.

“We were at the gate of the Olympic village and they had a television on,” Hart recalled. “We saw some heats going on and asked, ‘Are those reruns?’ They told, ‘No, it’s going on live.’ In that instant, I was locked in a horrible nightmare.”

The three of them commandeered a television van and raced off as quickly as possible, but it was too late. Hart was in the tunnel between the warmup track and the Olympic Stadium when the gun went off for a heat that he surely would have cruised through with no problem.

“I was maybe 100 meters or so from my race,” Hart said.

While he had every right to be furious, Hart never took it out on his coach. They were friends before Munich, they remained friends afterward. Hart’s wounds were soothed just a bit when he anchored the 400 relay team to a gold medal, but that didn’t fully replace what he had lost.

Hart retired after the Munich Games, got married, started a family and never looked back.

“I grew more as a result of not winning that medal,” he said. “Obviously, if I had my druthers, I would rather have the gold. But since it happened, I became a better person.”

Hart was pleased to hear that Kramer plans to stick with his coach. After sleeping on things, the skater said Wednesday “the past few years have been too good. We have won so much together. You can’t just throw that away.”

Why do mistakes such as these happen at the worst possible moments? What made Van de Velde throw away a three-shot lead on the final hole of the British Open? Why did Buckner let that simple little grounder roll through his legs in the 1986 World Series?

“This is why sports psychologists have their jobs,” said Dave Czesniuk, director of operations for Northeastern University’s Sport in Society. “As an athlete, you have to be of two different mindsets. There’s the training mindset and the trusting mindset.”

In training, he said, “you’re doing over-analysis, critical thinking, breaking down and dissecting your performance. You’re breaking down film, pointing out everything wrong so you can improve.”

On game day, an athlete must take a completely different approach.

“The trusting mindset is looking at the best possible scenario,” Czesniuk said. “You want to create the most confidence you can have, the most focus. You want to let your body go as fast as it can because that’s what you’ve trained for. It’s really almost the polar opposite from practice.”

When an athlete flops, it can be even more jolting on the once-every-four-years Olympic stage, since the odds of redemption are even slimmer.

Lindsey Jacobellis threw away Olympic gold at the 2006 Turin Games by showboating in the final of snowboardcross. A flashy board-grab went wrong, she tumbled in the snow and had to settle for silver instead of the ultimate prize.

At Vancouver, Jacobellis didn’t win anything. Now, her next shot at erasing the sting of Italy is 2014.

Persistence can pay off, however.

Just ask Dan Jansen, who went into both the ‘88 and ‘92 Winter Games favored to win gold in speedskating, only to come away with nothing after a series of spills and disappointing races. Coming back for one more shot in Lillehammer, he was down to his final event — and not even his best race — but pulled out a gold that felt even sweeter because of all he’d been through.

That’s a lesson everyone hopes Kramer will learn from Vancouver.

“If I were the team leader, the first thing I would say is nothing,” said Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee. “I would let him get the rage out. I would let him recover and compose. He is still the best skater of his generation.

“I suffer with him, but he’s still No. 1.”

A day after Kramer’s shocking disqualification, it seemed everyone in Vancouver was an amateur psychologist, wondering where the Dutchman goes from here. He’s already got a gold medal in the 5,000 and he’s still got another event at these games, the team pursuit. He’s only 23, so there’s no reason he can’t come back in four years to claim the 10,000 gold he should have had here.

Then again, some athletes have found their entire lives framed by one glaring mistake. Buckner retired not long after that little dribbler went through his legs. Van de Velde didn’t come close again to winning a major golf title.

“I think about what Sven might have done to his legacy as an athlete,” said Eric Heiden, the five-time gold medalist in speedskating from the 1980 Lake Placid Games. “This can be one of those sort of shattering experiences.

“Most athlete realize they’re only as good as their last race. They’ve got to pick things up and continue on. He’s a young guy, so he may have a chance to do this again. But that would be a tough one to swallow. I wouldn’t want to be in shoes.”

AP Sports Writer Stephen Wilson contributed to this report.

On the Web:

Eddie Hart All in One Foundation: www.eddiehartaiof.org

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