SOCHI, Russia — South Korea’s Lee Sang-hwa lived up to her favorite’s role in women’s 500-meter speedskating, turning in the two fastest runs to win Olympic gold Tuesday.
Lee dominated the World Cup circuit this season, winning every event she entered, and kept up that form at Adler Arena to take her second straight Olympic 500 title.
She led after the opening heat and went even faster the second time around the big oval, an Olympic-record time of 37.28 seconds to beat the mark of 37.30 set by Catriona Le May Doan at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
Lee’s combined time of 1 minute, 14.70 seconds was also an Olympic mark, beating Le May Doan’s record of 1:14.75 at the high-altitude Utah Olympic Oval.
When Lee saw the winning time, her head dropped back in obvious relief. She slapped her coach’s hand and grabbed a South Korean flag, reveling in a triumph that seemed assured the moment she toed the line in Sochi.
“Right now, she is almost Usain Bolt,” silver medalist Olga Fatkulina said.
The only real race was for second and third. The Russian crowd roared when Fatkulina took the host country’s second speedskating medal, finishing in 1:15.06.
Margot Boer claimed bronze with a combined time of 1:15.48, giving the Netherlands its eighth speedskating medal in Sochi. It was the first event at the Adler Arena they’ve failed to win, but was still a pleasant surprise for a team that had never been a strong contender in the all-out sprint.
The Americans have yet to make the podium.
Heather Richardson, who came into the Olympics ranked second in the World Cup standings, was fourth after the opening round and figured to put up a better time in her second race, finishing up on the outside lane. She actually went slower, dropping all the way to eighth.
Any hope of challenging the previous U.S. high of eight medals from the 2002 and 1980 Winter Games falls on Shani Davis, who goes into the men’s 1,000 on Wednesday looking to win his third straight gold in that event.
Lee made it two in a row. She wasn’t so dominant four years ago, edging Germany’s Jenny Wolf by a mere five-hundredths of a second over two runs.
This time, there was never any doubt.
Lee’s starts were flawless. She built up speed on the opening straightway with her arms swinging powerfully, her body low to the ice. By the time she came around the final turn, it almost seemed she could fly.
“Her technique is perfect,” said Wolf, who finished sixth this time. “Right now, she is more athletic than four years ago. Once she was not so well-trained. Mentally, she is always strong.”
Richardson is still hopeful about her best event on Thursday.
“It’s a good warm-up for the 1,000,” the High Point, N.C., native said. “I just want to go into it as calm as possible, just think of it as another 1,000 to do.”
Brittany Bowe of Ocala, Fla., was 13th in her weakest event. She is considered a medal contender in the 1,000 and 1,500.
The other American finishers: Lauren Cholewinski of Rock Hill, S.C., was 15th and Sugar Todd of Milwaukee 29th.
The biggest surprise was China’s Zhang Hong, who skated the first heat with the early group, which is made up of lower-rated skaters and rarely produces a medal contender. Considered stronger in the 1,000, she posted a startling time of 37.58 to hold the lead through most of the round.
Only at the end, when Lee and Fatkulina posted faster times, did Zhang finally fall out of the top spot.
She couldn’t keep it up on the second run, going 0.41 slower even with a more favorable lane and dropping to fourth, a tenth of a second out of a medal.