SOCHI -- Three weeks ago the support group that cocoons Claudia Pechstein, the decorated German speed skater who is as controversial as she is than venerable and has more jagged edges than rounded corners, made an internal wager that among the final four pairs, in the Olympic 3000 meters -- the top eight seeds -- Pechstein would draw the worst starting position: first pair, inside lane.
At 4:52 p.m. Sunday, Pechstein dug her skates in the Adler Arena ice in the first elite pair, inside lane.
The position was assigned randomly by the International Skating Union, the governing body of the sport. But seen through the quizzical eyes of Team Pechstein, which is as chary of the speed skating bureaucrats as the speed skating bureaucrats are of a soon-to-be-42 year-old who is still churning out killer times … well, let’s just say that like the animals on George Orwell’s farm, some randoms are a little more random than others.
The Team Pechsteiners were having difficulty viewing the start position as a minor coincidence because there happens to be a major case wending its way through a German state court in Munich that involves the skater and the union.
Pechstein is suing the ISU for four million euros (about $5.4 million) for loss of income, advertising revenues, court and medical costs, plus pain and suffering, because of a two-year suspension. The ban, in 2009, was issued because of abnormal values in her blood profile. It forced the five-time Olympian to miss Vancouver 2010.
The Swiss Federal Supreme Court and the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration in Sport subsequently rejected her appeals, but Pechstein did not slink back to competition after her two years of an unscheduled vacation. Send lawyers, guns and money. She returned to Sochi with a vengeance -- and lawyered up.
Revenge is a dish best served on ice.
Pechstein is not a warm, soft-focus and tremulous-violins kind of Olympian. She is a plain-speaking police officer from Berlin, a working cop who put in a 22-hour day on May 1 when May Day demonstrations went a little haywire.
She was raised in East Berlin. Pechstein is among the last vestiges of the old East German sports machine, although she skated in her first Olympics, in 1992, for a Germany that had unified two years before. She won a bronze medal in the 5,000 meters in Albertville as a 19-year-old, beginning one of the most fabulous careers in the history of the Winter Games. She stood at the starting line Sunday with five golds, two silvers and two bronzes, almost as much of an Olympic fixture as the flame, figure skating judging scandals and overpriced official merchandise.
The rule of thumb in sports now is if a performance seems too good to be true, it often is. Pechstein has never failed a dope test. There is no smoking gun. But after the world all-around championships in Norway in 2009, some abnormal cell readings were detected in her blood profile.
So, Aufwiedersehen. She became the first athlete to be banned without a positive test. Her Olympic career looked like it would come to a shuddering, ignominious end.
But quit was not in her DNA although hereditary spherocytosis might have been.
Pechstein had been nabbed in 2009 because of a high reticulocyte count, which led to the groundbreaking biological passport bust. (For those of who barely know the difference between a petri dish and a casserole, reticulocytes are immature red blood cells.) Typically the use of erythropoietin, EPO, boosts the production of red blood cells. It is associated with elevated reticulocytes. In other words, blood doping.
But Pechstein called in her own biological evidence in the person of Andreas Pechstein. Her father, a retired carpenter, also had a high level of reticulocytes. In theory, and maybe in practice, she was not a blood doper but a victim of inherited spherocytosis, which affects roughly one in 5,000 people of northern European ancestry and is genetically transferable.
Pechstein trotted out some premier white-coats to back her. Initially dubious, Gerhard Ehninger, head of the German Society of Hematology and Oncology, became an ally. Holding an oversized plastic model of a red blood cell and referring to 36 power point slides, Ehninger told a packed press conference in Berlin in 2010 that she had a blood irregularity and blamed Pechstein’s problems on “fanatical doping investigators.” Instead of a one in a million as a speed skater, Pechstein was a one-in-5,000 anomaly.
In the mixed zone after the race, I asked Jilleanne Rookard, the American skater who placed 10th, if she viewed Pechstein with respect or suspicion.
“A mix,” Rookard said. “Typical women. We’re all so competitive. But I respect her as an athlete. Forty-one. I’m 31, and there are so many aches and pains.”
Pechstein had zipped through the first 1,800 meters, essentially flying blind because the early pairing gave her no basis for comparison beyond Olga Graf, the Russian who would turn in the skate of her life.
The end was a slog -- Pechstein’s brisk 31-second laps turned into 33s -- and she crossed the finish line spent. She finished 1.79 seconds behind Graf, who would win Russia’s first medal in Sochi, a bronze that Pechstein had been eyeing.
With favorites Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic in the next pair and Irene Wust of the Netherlands in the following pair, Pechstein’s hopes of a 10th medal in a sixth games were basically over. She warmed down and then sprawled on a physiotherapy table trackside for 30 seconds before resuming a slow skate around Adler.
Finally she came into the mixed zone and spoke to the German media.
“Fourth is the worst possible result,” she said. “I gave it my all, but it’s just shit.”
Tears welled. She excused herself, returning to the media scrum a few minutes later -- now in sunglasses -- but Pechstein did not linger.
She had been selected randomly for doping control. Matthias Grosse, her boyfriend and her trainer, mentioned it would be the 516th doping control of her career.