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Philip Hersh: Some Olympic food for thought

February 17, 2009 |  1:45 pm

Katherine Reutter leads a December World Cup race in Japan.

A half-dozen Winter Olympic items to chew on:

1. Another Olympic medal-winning speedskater from Champaign, Ill.? Could be, the way Katherine Reutter, 20, has come on this season in short track, the discipline that gave Champaign product Bonnie Blair her start on ice -- but was not added to the Olympic program until Blair had established herself as the greatest long track skater (five Olympic golds) in U.S. history.

Last weekend in Germany, Reutter highlighted the best World Cup performance ever by U.S. women by winning silver medals at 1,000 and 1,500 meters, and a gold in the relay. While the world-leading Chinese skaters skipped the meet, Reutter showed she is in their league by skating the third-fastest time ever in the 1,000, less than two-tenths off the world record set last year by Wang Meng of China.[Changed from second-fastest time at 1:50 p.m.]

2. The International Skating Union’s numskull behavior now extends beyond figure skating’s judging system to the long track selection process for the 2010 Olympics. You don’t want to know all the details -- actually, I couldn’t give them to you, which is the problem for national federations trying to budget for next season in these difficult times.

To sum up:  skaters will earn Olympic spots based on performances in next fall’s World Cup meets, but the ISU has yet to spell out either the qualifying system or which meets will be used for which distances.

3. Got to root for skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender at the world championships next week in Lake Placid, N.Y. Uhlaender’s father, Ted, who pitched for the Twins, Indians and Reds, lost a year-long battle with bone marrow cancer last Thursday at age 69. Although he realized their remaining time together would be brief, Ted Uhlaender had insisted his daughter go ahead with plans to race the World Cup circuit this season.

"Unfortunately, there was no cure for his cancer or my torn heart," Uhlaender said. "I wanted to stay home, and he wanted me to compete."

Uhlaender, 24, won the World Cup overall title and a world meet silver medal in 2008, but her results most of this season reflected her preoccupation with her dad’s illness.  "He told me to push it out of my head and do my job,’’ she said.

Sadly, Ted Uhlaender died just before she won her first World Cup medal of the season, a silver in Park City, Utah. 

4. Yes, I know biathlon hardly is a mass-participation sport, with only a handful of countries devoting attention to it. But that doesn’t make the ongoing achievements of Norway’s

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen any less impressive.

Bjoerndalen, 35, has won the first three events at the world championships in South Korea, bringing his career total to 13 -- including a first title in the 20-kilometer individual event, which took place Tuesday. He now has an incredible 32 world medals plus nine medals (five gold) in three Olympic Games.

Rachael Flatt5. Rachael Flatt, likely to be the top U.S. woman at next month’s World Figure Skating Championships, has decided to go back to last year’s free skate music, a wise choice for her and an indictment of the sport. Flatt was skating this season to two Debussy tone poems, "The Sea" and "In a Boat," and interpreting them was too ambitious an exercise for a 16-year-old. More importantly, international judges lacked the musical sense to grasp what they were hearing, accustomed as they are to the "Boleros" and "Romeos" and "Toscas" and movie scores that are used ad nauseum in the sport.

So Flatt will recycle "Romantic Rhapsody," the Andre Mathieu music with which she won the 2008 world junior title -- a Gershwin-esque piano-and-orchestra piece that is less intellectually demanding and more easy listening than the Debussy. Thankfully, it still is a sophisticated choice rather than one of the old warhorses skaters favor.

6. The broadcast world’s best friend for fans of Olympic sports is going to reach more of us. Universal Sports announced Tuesday it has expanded into 20 additional TV markets (it already has outlets in Chicago and Los Angeles), including Houston, Miami, Seattle, Portland and Indianapolis. That will increase its potential viewership by 50% to 45 million households.

The next big event on the schedule: the first 1 1/2 hours of Saturday afternoon’s American Cup gymnastics from the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, Ill., with parent company NBC picking up the final two hours live.  Next week:  World Bobsled Championships.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo (top): Katherine Reutter leads a December World Cup race in Japan. Credit: Kyoshi Ota/Getty Images

Photo (inset): Rachael Flatt. Credit: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images

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