By Laura Weislo
Two teams lined up on either side of the Home Depot center velodrome on Friday morning, three men on each squad solely focused on one thing: getting quickly up to top speed and putting in a fast time in hopes of qualifying for the team sprint final that evening. What they did not expect that a sequence of events would unfold to create disaster.
Russians Sergey Borisov, Sergey Kucherov and Sergey Polynskiy were on the front straight, and the Korean team of Dong Jin Kang, Myeong Hyeon Lee and Su Hyun Park was on the back side awaiting the countdown. The clocked clicked down: three, two, one. The Russian team exited the starting blocks, and under the power of Borisov's lead, quickly gained speed into turn one, then continued to accelerate into turn two. What they didn't know was that the Korean team's starting gate malfunctioned and Park was trapped in the blocks as the Russian train barrelled toward him at 50 kph.
The referee managed to get one warning shot off as the Russians exited turn two, and at the last moment Borisov swung up, and Kucherov followed, but Polynskiy, with his head down, had no time to react and no idea that there was a machine in his path. The Russian plowed straight into the gate, throwing Park from his machine and flying through the air and down hard onto the wooden track floor.
The result was a broken wrist and forearm for Polynskiy, while Park was stunned for a while, but was able to recover and race the event once the officials re-started them. The incident, however, left both teams seething in anger for what they viewed as a lapse of attention on the part of the official in charge of firing the warning shot.
Yung Choi, a Korean who resides in the USA and acts as an assistant to the Korean national team placed the blame squarely on the referee who he feels should have seen the problem and immediately fired the warning shot to stop the Russians from riding. "I've seen this same official at Junior nationals and at Masters nationals asleep at the wheel. If he cannot pay attention, he should not be officiating. This is an important race, a qualifier for the Olympics. This kind of incident should never happen."
The head commissaire, Alexander Donike, dispelled any blame, saying that the coincidence of the malfunctioning gate and the gun failing to fire was simply an unfortunate combination of events. "We had a failure of the starting block in the first race, and we sent a technician over to check the block, and he did, and it was OK. And we had a second start, and the second start failed again, and the starter was unable to stop the Russian team because of a misfiring of the gun, and there was no way to stop the team. We tried whistling and waving flags."
Donike would not place blame on the officials, saying that the referees are frequently the target of teams' anger when things go wrong, but that neither the official with the gun nor the gates, which were provided by the organizer, would be removed from the event.
"We had no problems with the starting gate so far, we had some start failures, but not every failed start means the gate is wrong, it could be the rider is wobbling in the gate, or pulls out too soon."
"They checked the gates overnight, and they said the gates are OK, so we will use them for the events today. Hopefully everything will go alright."
That is little consolation for Polynskiy, who faces two separate surgeries to repair his broken bones. For Park, the incident meant a premature end to his time in Los Angeles. He chose to skip the second session and stay in the hotel, and then head back to his home country earlier than expected.
Donike regretted the incident, but was relieved that the riders were not more seriously injured.