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Hamelin fails to advance in 1,000-metre short-track speed skating

Canadian Charles Hamelin slips and cashes taking out American Eduardo Alvarez during the men's 1000m quarter finals event February 15, 2014 at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

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The difference between whether Charles Hamelin wins or loses is often as thin as a skate blade.

Hamelin, the dominant speed skater from Sainte-Julie, Que. who was looking to set records in Sochi, found himself on the wrong side of that equation Saturday when he lost an edge while cornering in the quarterfinals of the 1,000-metre race in short-track speed skating.

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Skating in second place with pressure from skaters behind him, Hamelin's feet slipped out from under him, and the Canadian multiple gold-medal winner hit the ice, sliding into the padded boards, and knocking down American rival Eduardo Alvarez in the process.

Hamelin couldn't explain what happened. One second he was chasing Russia's Victor An, the next he was down.

"You know, the ice broke under my blades and the next thing I know I was into the boards," a dejected Hamelin told reporters.

An, who won three golds for South Korea in 2006 in Turin but switched countries for the Sochi games amid disagreements with his own skating federation, won gold in a time of 1:25.325. His Russian teammate Vladimir Grigorev took silver (1:25.399), and China's Dajing Wu won bronze (1:25.611).

Though the 1,000 isn't Hamelin's best race, he entered the day a favourite for the podium, even a gold medal, which is more a testament to how dominant Hamelin has been on the short-track circuit this season.

The stumble - an uncharacteristically early exit for Hamelin - is quickly turning a fast start at the Olympics for Canada's mens short-track team into one of mounting problems. Hamelin, 29, kicked off the Games in thrilling fashion on Monday, with a gold medal victory in the 1,500-metre race. It was the first of what some observers said could be a four-medal Olympics for the country's best short-track skater, brining his career total to seven and making him the most decorated Canadian Olympian of all time.

But despite the impressive 1,000 victory, the rest of that plan has failed to materialize.

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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, Hamelin's brother, François, lost and edge and fell.

Hamelin refused to blame his brother for the fall after that race, and with good reason -- in the rough and tumble sport of short-track speed skating, falls are a race-to-race reality. The best skaters in the world can be made human in a split second when chaos and carnage unfold on the short track. On Saturday, it was simply Hamelin's turn.

He now has one more shot at a medal, in the mens 500-metre sprint which he won in Vancouver four years ago. The heats for that race begin on Tuesday, with the final being held on Friday.

Should Hamelin successfully defend his gold medal in the 500, it would bring his career haul to five Olympic medals. In addition to his gold medal in Sochi, he won gold in the 500-metre and 5,000-metre relay in Vancouver four years ago, and silver in the 5,000-metre relay at the 2006 Turin Games.

Long-track speed skater Cindy Klassen is the current record holder for most medals in the Winter Olympics, with six to her name, including five won in Turin. Cyclist and long-track speed skater Clara Hughes won six medals as well, spread over the Winter and Summer Games.

Hamelin was thought to be a sure-shot for at least three medals in Sochi, given how powerful he has been on the world cup circuit this year.

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After his double-medal win in Vancouver, Hamelin and his coaches set about to become even better, making him stronger on his skates, and more savvy with strategy. His victory in the 1,000-metre race seemed to suggest the plan had worked masterfully. But in short-track speed skating, where skaters have famously won Olympic races merely by being the one who stayed on their feet the longest, even the best can see their medal dreams hit the ice.

Though the ice betrayed him on Saturday, Hamelin said going in that he quite liked the the short-track constructed at the Iceberg Skating Palace.

"We skated here last year," Hamelin said last week before his events. "The ice is really good. It looks a lot like Vancouver."

Heading into his last race, he'll be looking for one last shot to rekindle that Vancouver magic, when his victory in the 500 relied, among other things, on staying upright, and crossing the finish line.

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