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Lawsuit Is Race’s Latest Turn

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Short-track speedskater Rusty Smith of Sunset Beach, accused by former teammate Tommy O’Hare of conspiring to fix a race at the U.S. Olympic trials to keep O’Hare off the team and help Shani Davis qualify, has filed a defamation suit against O’Hare.

Smith’s suit, filed Thursday in District Court in El Paso County, Colo., contends O’Hare’s charges have damaged his reputation and caused him humiliation, pain and mental anguish, and could result in a potential loss of sponsorships. It also contends Smith has experienced “loss of concentration and appetite and other physical suffering.”

No damages were specified. According to Colorado law, damages would be requested at trial.

O’Hare, a 1998 Olympian, claimed Smith and Apolo Anton Ohno agreed to hold back in the 1,000-meter race Dec. 22 at the Utah Olympic Oval so Davis could make the team for the Salt Lake City Winter Games. Ron Biondo, who finished fourth, has also said he believes Ohno blocked him from overtaking Smith.

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Biondo had to finish ahead of Smith to win a spot in the 1,000, and Davis had to win the race to accrue enough points to finish among the top six and earn the final spot on the team.

Davis won, ending Ohno’s seven-race winning streak, Smith was second and Ohno was third. Ohno later said he “played it safe” because he had secured an Olympic berth and wanted to avoid injury. He denied colluding with Smith.

O’Hare told the St. Louis Post Dispatch the supposed agreement between Smith and Ohno was “a typical case of ‘You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours,’” and added, “Rusty needed Biondo blocked and Apolo said, ‘Sure, I’ll help you out, but you have to let Shani win.’”

O’Hare filed a complaint last week with U.S. Speedskating--the sport’s national governing body--alleging a conspiracy to deny him a spot on the team. He asked that Smith and Ohno be dropped from the team for violating U.S. Speedskating’s Code of Conduct and asked to be reinstated to the roster.

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An arbitration hearing has been scheduled for Tuesday at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. However, U.S. Speedskating asked independent arbitrator John Holbrook to remove himself from the case because it claims any suspicions about the race should have been raised by the referees on the day of the race. The referees took no action. Holbrook will decide next week whether he has jurisdiction.

O’Hare’s attorney, John Collins, said he had received statements from several people supporting O’Hare. However, only Biondo has come forward.

“To me, the Olympics are fake,” Biondo, who made the team for only the relay, told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. “On one hand, I feel, yeah, they should be on the team, they earned it. But if it was football and they threw a game, they would be kicked out of the sport. I am just glad I’m not the one to make the decision.”

Biondo also said he heard Ohno yell, “Don’t pass! Don’t pass!” during the race, apparently to Smith.

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Smith, reached Friday at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, declined to comment on the advice of his attorney, Ed Williams. He told The Times the day after the race that he hadn’t manipulated the outcome in any way. “Absolutely nothing happened,” he said.

In a statement released by Williams, Smith said: “Any allegation that there was a fix, conspiracy, understanding or any other word between Apolo and me or anyone else to let Shani win the race is completely false. Shani is a great, athlete [and] skated a great race and deserves to be on the team.”

Smith has been on the U.S. senior national team since 1996. He and Ohno are considered Olympic medal contenders and were the only skaters to qualify at three individual distances and the 5,000-meter relay.

“He has been defamed. He has been accused, essentially, of a crime,” said Williams, a 1968 Olympic biathlon participant. “He has been damaged.... He has been distracted and frustrated. It’s an anxious time for him. No one likes to be accused of a crime when you’re innocent.

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“This is a very stressful time for athletes, when they’re trying for the Olympics, and there are a lot of emotions involved. It happened to me the first time I tried to make the team. Athletes deal with their disappointment in different ways. Some blame the coach, some say the coffee wasn’t hot enough, some blame the ice. Unfortunately, in this case, Tommy O’Hare is blaming his former teammate.”


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