Charles Hamelin refused to blame the ice after his second fall in Sochi cost him of another medal, but a top Canadian official said the surface in Sochi isn't being properly maintained and is too brittle for short-track racers.
After falling in his qualification heat in the 500-metre short track race Tuesday - an uncharacteristically early exit for the defending gold medalist - an emotional Hamelin went into a bathroom stall at the Iceberg Skating Palace and cried, angry and disappointed over his second fall at the Sochi Olympics. For a skater who rarely falls, the slips have now cost Hamelin two medals.
Hamelin, who won gold in the 1,500-metre race last week, said he couldn't explain why he fell, other than he felt the ice break. But his father Yves Hamelin, Canada's short-track program director, said there have been concerns all week about the softness of the ice at the arena, causing it to fracture and chip more than usual during short-track races.
"The ice just broke under my blade," Charles said. "My blades slipped in the corner. I don't know, I'll have to look at the race with the coaches to make sure, to know what happened."
But Yves said Canadian officials watched the replay of the race, and saw the ice crumble as Charles rounded the corner in what was otherwise a fast race.
"The ice broke badly under [Charles'] right skate, creating bit of imbalance on his heel, and then he lost control," Yves said. "It's a very unfortunate event, but the ice is tough to race here. He was fast, his previous two laps were perfect, so the time would have been the fastest so far. Everything was fine, but the ice simply broke under his blade and he fell."
The Iceberg Skating Palace is host to both the short-track and figure skating events in Sochi, and the athletes for both events prefer very different kinds of ice.
Figure skating and short-track speed skating often share ice at the Olympics, as they did in Vancouver four years ago. But the quality of ice comes down to how well the surface is maintained and repaired after each event, including the amount of water and temperature of the cooling system, and how the events are spaced out over the Games.
Figure skaters like their ice thick and soft, while a short track arena is generally shaved thinner and so that the ice is harder and compact. Switching between the two events in a very short time-frame - figure skating wrapped up its ice dance gold medal less than 15-hours before the men's 500 race - has created a surface the short-track skaters can't necessarily trust.
"It's really soft," Yves said. "We are two sports, with two different specifications. The figure skater likes thicker and warmer… so they try to grind [the ice] up between [events] but it keeps the ice soft, and for us it's definitely tougher for us to be stable on such ice"
Though Charles gathered himself before speaking to reporters, Yves said the skater was unusually upset when he stepped off the ice, throwing his water bottle in anger. Not wanting to be upset in front of skaters from other countries, Charles then walked from the locker room into the bathroom to be alone.
"He was really upset. He came to the bathroom and cried a lot," Yves said. "So I came to see if he was okay. I was there to just support him… the first thing that I said is 'Let it go. Scream, yell, let it go.'" His teammates Olivier Jean and Charle Cournoyer, who both moved on to Friday's quarter-finals in their heats, the came in to console Charles.
It was the first time Yves said he had seen his son cry so openly after a race. "He was really upset."
After a dominant season on the international circuit, Charles came into the Sochi Olympics a strong contender for four medals, and on the brink of history - poised to become the most decorated Canadian Olympian of all time. Charles was hoping to add to his stash of three medals from past Olympics. But after winning gold in convincing fashion in the men's 1500-metre race, the Canadians have suffered considerable bad luck due to falls.
In addition to his early exit from medal contention Saturday, the mens 5,000-metre relay team was unable to win a medal this week under similar circumstances. In that race, Charles's brother, François, lost an edge and fell. Then in the quarter-finals of the 1,000-metre race, the ice broke under Charles's skate as he rounded a corner and he fell.
Yves suspects the problem is due to too much water being used to resurface the ice. Heavy flooding after each use creates a weaker layer on top, which is bad for short-track skating.
After the figure skating ice dance wrapped late Monday night, two resurfacing machines that clean the rink at the Ice Palace could be seen using large amounts of water - visibly much more water than is employed between periods at a National Hockey League game, for example - to prepare the surface for short track.
And during the competition Tuesday, ice crews dumped large buckets of water on the corners, spreading it out with squeegees to try to repair divots and skate grooves.
Yves said there was nothing Charles should have done differently in the race.
"Its a bad day again for [Charles], but he was in control," Yves said. "It's as simple as that, unfortunately."
Charles acknowledged later that he was quite upset with how the race went.
"After the race I felt like I wanted to destroy everything," he said. "And now I am a more controlled person."
He said watching his girlfriend, Marianne St-Gelais win silver in the women's 3,000-metre relay helped ease the pain of his fall.
"Short-track is a sport that is really exciting and can be really, really glorious for some people, and sometimes can be really rude and really cruel for some other people. And for me right now, in the 1,000 and the 1,500-metres, it's a tough moment to pass through. But it's not because I was not strong enough," he said.
"But the girls just won the silver medal and I was so happy for them, for Marianne and the team. They worked pretty hard for that," Charles said. He added, "I want to remember more [about] that than what happened" in his own race.
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