Li Jianrou avoided an early pile-up to coast to victory in the women’s 500-metre short track speed skating yesterday, collecting China’s first gold at the at the Sochi Games.
In a heart-thumping race, the 27-year-old first-time Olympian took the lead off the mark and eased home after her rivals collided on the second turn of the all-out sprint.
China’s gold-medal favourite Fan Kexin had failed to qualify for the A final, adding to the nation’s disappointment after the absence from Sochi, due to an ankle injury, of four-times Olympic champion Wang Meng.
She survived the crash in the first lap of the 4.5-lap final to keep the Olympic title in China’s hands.
Injured countrywoman Wang Meng could not defend the gold she had won at every Winter Games since 2002.
She timed 45.263 seconds to finish nearly six seconds ahead of Italy’s Arianna Fontana, the bronze medallist from Vancouver in 2010, who took silver in 51.250.
Despite an initial false start Park Seung-Hi of South Korea took bronze in 54.207.
Li and one of her coaches cried after she won.
The victory made up for the surprising fall of teammate Fan Kexin in the semi-finals.
Elise Christie of Britain caused the crash in the third turn of the opening lap when she veered into Fontana and sent both skaters spinning into the pads.
Park got clipped and lost her balance going into the next turn. She fell into the sideboard, but got up and resumed skating. Li was closely trailing in last place when the chaos erupted. She took over the lead and went on to victory.
Park came across the line in last place, but Christie got disqualified, allowing Park to claim the bronze.
In the semis, Fan did not even complete the first lap of the sprint, catching her left blade as she skated near the front. She crashed on all fours into the crew of workers who maintain the ice between races. They scrambled onto the top of the pads to avoid being injured by Fan’s long, sharp blades.
Christie was lucky to be in the 500 final, surviving a photo finish to advance to the medal round after Fan’s crash.
Park was trying to give South Korea a victory in the only short track event it has never won.