Column: Heiden’s 5 gold medals is greatest feat in sports

Even after all these years, Eric Heiden still marvels at what he accomplished during those nine days in the tiny village of Lake Placid.

Five speedskating races, ranging from an all-out sprint of barely more than a lap to a grueling marathon covering more than 6 miles around the oval.

Five gold medals.

“As time goes by, it becomes more outstanding what I did in 1980,” Heiden said this week. “When I try to equate it to other sports, it’s just unheard of.”

There’s not a hint of self-aggrandizing in his voice during a phone interview with The Associated Press, just the cold, hard analysis of an ex-athlete who has spent a majority of his 64 years as an orthopedic surgeon.

“I enjoy working with athletes who are at an elite level,” Heiden said. “Very often, I’ll also be talking with exercise physiologists. We will put our heads together and try to figure out how you can win a race that takes roughly 35 seconds (the 500 meters), then win a race that takes nearly 15 minutes (the 10,000) against the best of the best.

“No one has been able to come up with any good answers.”

With apologies to every other stellar athlete who accomplished something remarkable, Heiden’s sweep of every men’s speedskating event at the 1980 Winter Olympics was and remains the greatest feat in sporting history.

Such a pronouncement is strictly subjective, of course, and in no way is meant to demean Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, or Babe Ruth hitting more homers by himself in a season than every other team in the American League, or Michael Phelps hoarding eight gold medals at the Beijing Summer Games.

But those achievements, as great as they were, comprised one extraordinary night, or came over the course of an entire season, or came with a series of victories that weren’t as diverse as Heiden’s.

Phelps, for instance, swept his five individual races in 2008, but the distances ranged from 100 to 400 meters (he also took part in three winning relays, swimming either 100 or 200 meters) What about Usain Bolt? He won both the 100 and 200 sprints over three consecutive Olympics, posting world-record times in both events. But it’s ludicrous to think of him also tackling the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000, much less winning them, which is basically what Heiden did.

One could argue for the sustained excellence of, say, Nolan Ryan, who tossed seven no-hitters while striking out more than 5,700 hitters — three more no-hitters and nearly 1,000 more Ks than anyone else in baseball history.

Or the outrageous factoid that Wayne Gretzky would still have more points than anyone in NHL history even if you erased his record-setting 894 goals.

Heiden had no room for error in Lake Placid. He had to be on top of his game for five straight races, going against the world’s best speedskaters — among them, a strong East German contingent that was likely getting plenty of pharmaceutical assistance.

On Feb. 15, 1980, Heiden claimed his first gold medal in the 500, setting an Olympic-record time in the 1 1/4-lap sprint. The very next day, he returned to the outdoor oval next to Lake Placid High School and set another Olympic mark in the 5,000, conquering the field over 12 1/2 laps.

Heiden said that brutal, 24-hour turnaround wasn’t so bad.

“The 500 is hard. You go flat out all the way around. But it doesn’t take it out of you like some other distances,” he said. “Schedule-wise, I thought it was .very fortuitous. If there’s ever gonna be a point in the schedule where you didn’t have a rest day, it was nice to race the 5,000 immediately after the 500 meters.”

After two days off, Heiden took gold in the 1,000 with another Olympic-record performance. Then came another day off, followed by his fourth straight Olympic record in the 1,500.

Finally, after one more day to rest up, Heiden capped his unprecedented showing on Feb. 23, 1980, with a world record in the 10,000. He finished nearly 8 seconds ahead of silver medalist Piet Kleine of the Netherlands after 25 laps around the oval.

Five races.

Five gold medals.

Heiden’s name came up again recently when 18-year-old American Jordan Stolz — who grew up skating on a frozen pond in his native Wisconsin, just like Heiden — turned in an spectacular performance at last weekend’s single-distance world championships in Holland.

Stolz became the youngest world champion in the sport’s history, and the first male skater to win at three distances — 500, 1,000 and 1,500 — in the event.

He’s also had success in the 5,000 at the junior level, and could add the 10,000 to his repertoire to accomplish his goal of being an all-around world champion Which, of course, raised the prospect of Stolz attempting to duplicate Heiden’s performance when the Milan Olympics roll around three years from now.

“I hope he gives it a go,” Heiden said. “The 5,000 meters is probably within reach. The 10,000 meters? That’s gonna be a stretch. but I certainly think he’s talented enough and has the mental fortitude to do it.”

Heiden’s accomplishment is often overlooked, which is not all that surprising since his five gold medals were even overshadowed in Lake Placid by perhaps the greatest upset in sports history: the U.S. hockey team shocking the mighty Soviets.

Heiden doesn’t mind a bit. The Americans clinching the hockey gold on the final day of the 1980 Games — after his competition was over — remains one of his fondest memories.

“I grew up playing ice hockey,” he said. “The thing I remember as one of the outstanding moments was sitting next to Al Michaels and Ken Dryden for the U.S.-Finnish gold medal game. They were set up at a card table, calling the game, and I was right next to them, sitting in a folding metal chair.”

An outstanding moment, indeed.

But Heiden had already accomplished the greatest feat of them all.

“It was a special result in the world of sports that I don’t think will ever be recreated,” Heiden said, not bragging a bit. “I still scratch my head and wonder, ‘How in the heck was I able to do that?'”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today