"Third time going to be a charm, Dan?" came the question—delicately, always delicately.
"The third time was here and gone," Dan Jansen replied.
The subject had become so much a part of the Winter Games that we had lost count: Jansen skates for a medal and finds new and cruder ways not to win one. Three times already he had given the Olympics a piece of his heart, and three times the Games had forgotten to send him a valentine in return. These were his fourth Olympics—courteously, always courteously, Jansen reminded the press that he had been a teenage Olympian in 1984—and they brought no charm, only continued hex. Jansen didn't fall in the 500 meters on Monday afternoon, as he had so memorably done precisely six years ago in Calgary. But he slipped, and that consigned him to eighth place in an event of which he has been the world's master on virtually every other occasion.
At Sarajevo in 1984, Jansen, only 18, placed fourth in the 500 and 16th in the 1,000. In '88 he received a phone call on the morning he was to skate the 500 in Calgary. His 27-year-old sister, Jane, who had fought leukemia for a year, was breathing her last. She couldn't speak to him, but Dan spoke to her, and their brother Mike relayed Jane's wish that Dan race for her. She died before he took the ice that afternoon. He slipped and fell in the first turn. Four days later, in the 1,000, Jansen fell again.
In Albertville in 1992 he balked in the final turn of the 500 and wound up fourth; in the 1,000, in which he relies more on his gliding ability, his 190 pounds sank as the soft ice of the outdoor oval puddled up in the Alpine sun. He finished in a tie for 26th, and all of America puddled up too, this time at what seemed like a pitiless conflation of two myths, those of Icarus and Sisyphus.
"I know he's going to win," his coach, Peter Mueller, said before Monday's race. "The way he's skating, he can skate 90 percent and win. If he skates 100 percent, he can win big. And right now he's skating 110 percent. He's the greatest sprinter in the history of speed skating, and he's going to prove it."
There is only one way to prove such a claim to an easily distracted world. It's not by winning World Cup races, although Jansen has won more than 30 in his career. World records? The 500 meters has been largely his since 1991. And world championships won't do it, either, though he has won some 20 medals at the worlds over the past decade. All of these are trees falling in the forest with no one there.
And so Jansen came to the upside-down ship's hull of the Vikingskipet arena in Hamar, where he seemed to have found a home, even if a capsized boat may not be the most auspicious place for someone who navigates water in its frozen state. Here in December he set a world record and also broke the 36-second barrier twice, an achievement that Mueller likened to the shattering of the four-minute mile in track and field. In practice last week he tore off a hand-timed 35.9. But there had been promising auguries before, and each had betrayed him. Jansen was the freshly crowned world sprint champion going into the Calgary Games; the Albertville Olympics came three weeks after he had set a world record in the 500. Since Sarajevo, all he had to show for the Games was two falls, a fourth and a 26th.
All season Jansen has avoided talking about his earlier Olympic experiences. But he was hardly unmindful of them. For luck he had taken to wearing a shirt from the Carolina Panthers, the NFL expansion team for which his brother-in-law works. Wipe out the past, Jansen seemed to be saying, by identifying with something that has none. He spoke of ripping off another world record. And he sought to adopt a more aggressive attitude. "I try to imagine what it would be like if someone did beat me, and I get mad," he said on Friday. "That seems to be when I really skate well—when I have a little anger in me."
But it's hard to be hostile on a speed skating oval when you're paired with another racer simply out of convention and your real opponent is the clock. And by nature Jansen is no angry young man. After each of his previous failures, he seemed pained and philosophical—anything but mad. When Susan Lucci fails again and again to win that daytime Emmy, there's an aptness to it, a confirmation of her television character. Jansen has been too diligent, too sympathetic, too deserving of finally putting all this torture to rest, to make a persuasive angry avenger.
The 500 meters is a flurry of gnashing blades, done with after 70, perhaps 80 footstrokes. Jansen's split time over the first 100 meters pleased him. He was his usual strong self in the backstretch. It was on the first stride of the last turn that he fleetingly lost control under his left skate. He tried to pull his foot back, but his left hand grazed the ice, and over so short a distance a lost half-second is a lost race.
His wife, Robin, knew instantly. "Why, God?" she asked herself as she watched from the stands. "Why again?"
And it was she who seemed to take the loss the hardest, lashing out on Norwegian TV about the unusually hard ice, which didn't allow Jansen to dig in and exploit his power and favored the slighter (5'8½", 163-pound) Aleksandr Golubev of Russia, who won the gold medal.
From behind dark glasses, Mueller was more subdued. "As far as I'm concerned, he's the best," he said of Jansen. "He always will be in my book. If he skates 100 times, he's going to win 95. This doesn't take away from what he is—the greatest sprinter of all time and a gentleman."
At the very first Winter Games, in Chamonix in 1924, the first gold medal went to the winner of the 500 meters, an American named Charles Jewtraw. Jewtraw's tough luck would come later. Upon losing his job during the Depression, he went home to Lake Placid, hoping to find work teaching the one thing he knew, skating. He wound up sweeping floors.
For Jansen, who's now 28, life's vicissitudes simply may have been front-loaded. "It's not 'a piece,' " he had said when someone asked whether he was on a quest for something that might make him whole. "No matter what happens, life goes on. I have a wife and a child to go home to. I'll just have to live my life without an Olympic 500-meter gold medal."
Perhaps there's a medal to be won in this Friday's 1,000 meters. "If it happens, it does," says Jansen, who says these are his last Olympics. "If not, I'll go on—same old thing."
With Robin, their daughter, Jane, and the gift of perspective, life should be a glide. The podium on which Jansen didn't stand was made of ice, and it will melt.
JOHN MCDONNELL/THE WASHINGTON POST