Sadly, losses define Spoon

TURIN -- The list of decorated Canadians who never won Olympic medals includes legendary names such as Kurt Browning, Ken Read and Patrick Roy.

All of them champions in their own sporting worlds.

The list, contrary to popular legend, does not include the name of Jeremy Wotherspoon. It only seems that way.

Canada's convenient Olympic whipping boy probably took his final speed skating lap at a Winter Games yesterday, nowhere near contention at the Lingotto Oval, but nowhere near embarrassing, either.

He didn't trip. He didn't slip. He just got beat.

And there is some honour in finishing 11th in a 1,000-metre field this deep and this strong, behind four feuding Americans, even if it doesn't read that way in the small print.

"It felt better than an 11th-place finish," Wotherspoon said. It felt better, yet looked over for the most dominant Canadian male skater since Gaetan Boucher.

"Everybody has a different view of him," teammate Steven Elm said. "For people who are into our sport, he's a legend regardless of what has happened at the Olympics. To me, he's a huge legend. He's the most winning sprinter ever."

But nobody thinks about that. Nobody notices that he wins races and medals between Olympic Games, that his 57 World Cup and world championship medals are more than any speed skater in history. All we remember are his Perdita moments; not the silver medal he won in Nagano. Not the great finish where Canadians placed second, third, fourth and fifth for the first time ever.

Just the mishaps, the slips and the falls. His disappointments. Our disappointment.

"That's all everybody (in the media) reminds him of," Elm said. "I was in a lot of the interviews before the Olympics. It was like 'Jeremy, are you over your fall?' Every time he talks to someone they remind him of it.

"I wish there was a little more Barry Bonds in him. Kind of tell people where to go."

But Wotherspoon took it all to heart, spent too much time with sports psychologists, couldn't skate away from his critics, couldn't find a way to please them or himself.

The medal he won seems forever forgotten. The medals he lost, sadly, have defined him. Yesterday, in his third Olympic Games, in his sixth Olympic race, his transformation was apparent. No longer a challenger, he played the role of rabbit, setting the pace for the historical gold-medal-winning African-American, Shani Davis.

Others used be his fodder. Now, even though he doesn't confirm he will retire, his ninth-place finish in his specialty, the 500 metres, and a better performance, placing 11th yesterday, show there's no reason for him to continue on to Vancouver.

"Olympic gold medals may define people to a lot of the public, but the people in our sport know differently," said American Casey FitzRandolph, a former medal winner himself. "They know who he is and what he has done.

"I learned a lot from Jeremy. He caught me that the thing that ultimately matters in this sport is that you did everything you can to be the best you can be. I don't know if there's a guy on the track who has as much respect from his competitors internationally as he."

And he isn't Susan Lucci, the perennial bridesmaid, even if he continually is portrayed that way. Somewhere locked away is an Olympic silver medal. A medal that's precious to him.

One medal and 57 other medals from world-class competitions. A whole house full of them.

"There were a couple of times when I skated world records in practice," Wotherspoon, almost relaxed, said after his race. Almost. "That's the crazy thing. You look up (at the clock), and it's a Saturday morning in Calgary and you're skating this time."

And what of the public perception that he couldn't do it when it mattered most, for the two weeks every four years when someone was paying attention?

"It bothers me a little," he said, lying only slightly. "So much more emphasis gets put on the Olympics."

It never was entirely fair to him. Any judgment should be based on an entire body of work. He did win 57 times. Against the best in his game. Three times at the Olympics, he either slipped or fell.

"I wish it was different," Jeremy Wotherspoon said at what is certainly his last Olympics. "I wish ..."