RICHMOND, British Columbia — If ever there was a blunder of Olympic proportions, this was it.
Sven Kramer lost the gold medal Tuesday when coach Gerard Kemkers sent him the wrong way on a changeover during the 25 laps of the 10,000-meter speedskating race – a mistake so elementary, it defies belief.
"It is a disastrous error," said Kemkers, still in shock because his faulty instructions had Kramer disqualified and moved Lee Seung-hoon of South Korea from silver to gold.
"This is unprecedented in an Olympic Games," said U.S. coach Derek Parra.
Kramer had not lost a 10,000 in three years, making him the prohibitive favorite to win – until the inexplicable happened.
Every lap, a skater moves from the outside lane to the inside lane, or vice versa, for a changeover to make sure everybody skates the same distance.
Almost never is there a problem. But sometimes the skater can get into such a zone of focus on his style and pace that the mind becomes blurred.
"You are thinking a lot of things in your race. It is a mental fight for 25 laps," said defending champion Bob de Jong, who won bronze because of Kramer's disqualification.
"Sometimes you're coming out and looking for good ice, you might go either tight on the track or wide on the track to get better ice. And it's at that time you think – 'OK, where did I just come from?'"
That is why a coach is there to help him.
This time, though, Kramer did the right thinking and it was his trackside coach who was confused.
Kemkers was busy writing "Difference Lee 29" – speedskating code to show how Kramer's race was progressing – when, in a split second, he lost his way.
He looked up, didn't realize that Kramer had already moved outside, and thought his skater had to move inside instead. Not fully convinced, he looked back and saw skater Ivan Skobrev, who had cut inside early in the changeover, and presumed the Russian had to move outside. Wrong again.
With Kramer approaching the red cone at the end of the changeover, Kemkers desperately pointed him inside with one finger while Kramer was making the right decision to move to the outside lane.
The years of trust between coach and skater convinced Kramer to change his mind and move inside. With one leg over the cone, he cut the corner.
Suddenly, Kemkers realized that Skobrev was now in the same lane, and despair descended on him.
"This is the fear of the coach," Kemkers said.
He flung open his arms wide and shouted at the Russian coach behind him in hope of hearing Kramer was OK. The Russian coach did not even acknowledge him.
Kemkers looked at the other side of the track again and it dawned on him. He bent over with his arms on his legs, and wiped his eyes. Then, he just stared into oblivion as even the stadium clock became confused because of the mixup.
The thousands of Dutch fans in the stands were increasingly befuddled that their biggest star, the man who was to turn Vancouver into Svencouver with three gold medals, could miss out on his second title.
On the ice, Kramer was still giving it his all, with his intermediate times steadily increasing the gap over Lee. At this time, he even had the alacrity to look up at his girlfriend Naomi van As in the stands. The Olympic field hockey gold medalist, however, already had her head in her hands.
"I thought, 'This is not good,'" Kramer said.
He still had his arms outstretched in victory when he crossed the line, 4.05 seconds ahead of Lee's Olympic record of 12 minutes, 58.55 seconds. Even with the extra inside lane, the margin would have sufficed for an easy win.
With the memory of his girlfriend's head in hands in his mind, he immediately confronted Kemkers, and heard the worst news of his sporting career. He threw away his glasses in disgust.
He pushed Kemkers off with his left hand, and skated away. In the infield, while Kemkers was cleaning the blades, Kramer sat on his own beside the track when he should have been celebrating with the whole Dutch team.
After winning the 5,000 on the opening day of Olympic speedskating, Kramer was counting on Tuesday's win to lead him to a trio of titles with the team pursuit coming up. It would tie him with the greatest skater the Dutch had up to now – Ard Schenk, who won three gold medals at the 1972 Sapporo Games.
The mistake has happened in the past. In 2006, with the world all-round title on the line, Chad Hedrick made a similar blunder in the concluding 10,000. He has often been made fun of because of it since.
"You cannot make fun of Chad anymore," Parra said. "There is a whole new bar."