GANGNEUNG, South Korea — For the life of him, Sven Kramer could not remember what it feels like to be an underdog. He has been the favorite whenever he came on the ice since childhood.
“I don’t know anything else,” Kramer said, without even a hint of braggadocio. “I have not been an underdog since I was 8 years old.”
It won’t be any different when the 5,000 meters opens the men’s Olympic program Sunday, a distance in which he is the double defending champion.
Does it make the 31-year-old good as gold? Far from it, and it should be something his rivals can cling to. In three Olympics he only has three gold medals, a measly reflection of his overall dominance of the sport over the last dozen years. He has a record nine world all-around titles and a whopping 19 world single-distance golds.
The problem is, Kramer has been prone to mistakes at the highest level. And none bigger than when he was cruising toward a seemingly inescapable 10,000 Olympic title in Vancouver eight years ago, only to inexplicably miss a lane change. It was one of the biggest blunders in Winter Olympics history.
Four years earlier at the Turin Games, he hit a lane block and took the Dutch out in an event they had been destined to win.
All that is in the past now, he is convinced he can add three more golds at the Olympic oval to further cement his stature as the greatest ever speedskater.
“I can only look at myself and my aim is to do better than four years ago,” he said. He won gold in the 5,000 and team pursuit but was upset by teammate Jorrit Bergsma in the 10,000.
It is this double failure over the longest distance on the program that continues to haunt him.
And it might haunt him even more this time. Bergsma is back and Ted-Jan Bloemen has shared the limelight with Kramer this year. The Dutch-born Canadian broke Kramer’s 5,000 world record this winter, showing how he has risen from an insecure skater in the Netherlands to a world beater in Canada.
And Kramer knows it. “He’s getting better and better, especially when he moved from the Netherlands to Canada,” Kramer said. “He became a more professional athlete, that’s why he is where he is now.”
The race for gold Sunday will likely be between the two, with the 10,000 set for Thursday.
The team pursuit could bring him a third gold and he is even entered in the mass start, the new event on the schedule. Don’t count on getting him gold there. He is very fresh in the event, and is largely seen as the teammate who should help get Koen Verweij gold.
Never count anything out, though. His Olympic surprises have been negative up to now and that might change in the mass start.
“The main goal is gold for Netherlands, and who is not important,” Kramer said. “If it’s Koen it’s OK. And if it’s me, it’s OK too, of course.”
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