Ace of the ice Stenson takes 5,000m gold
Sten Stensen was one of Norway’s famed “four S-es” (“four aces”) during the country’s reign as the kings and queens of speed skating in the 1970s.
As such, he went into the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck as the favourite to pick up gold in both the 5,000m and 10,000m events. But that feat was to elude him, thanks to a rivalry that was as unexpected, and as thrilling, as it was brief.
Distance skating ace Stensen – then nearing the end of his career on the ice – had recently set a new 10k world record at the 1976 European Championships in Oslo, and had also won the distance at the 1975 European and 1974 World Championships.
The introduction of sleek ski suits and streamlined helmets all made headlines at the 1976 Winter Games, heralding a new era in sporting innovation.
In Olympic competition, skaters race in pairs against the clock around a 400m oval. During these exhilarating and occasionally perilous contests, which typically see racers hit speeds of 64kph, competitors must change lanes in the back straight of each lap, with the skater passing from outside to inside having priority.
Races are physically gruelling, with skaters constantly buffeted by centrifugal forces of 50-60kg, forcing them to lean heavily towards the sheet ice track.
As the speed skating competition got under way at The Olympia Eisschnelllaufbahn, all went to plan and Stensen collected his first gold medal in the 5,000m, winning in 7:24.48.
Conditions were poor – a snowstorm came on as the race began – but the tough Norwegian Army lieutenant managed to hold off challenges from Piet Kleine of Holland, who took silver, and his countryman Hans van Helden.
Days later, Stensen prepared to achieve his double. Less than a month before the Games, he had set a world record of 14:50.31.
Like the earlier race, the 10k competition began in poor conditions, with heavy snow making visibility very poor. However, though the weather was the same, the outcome was to be very different, as rising star Kleine was determined not to miss out on a place atop the winners’ podium a second time.
Van Helden, who had already won another bronze in the 1,500m and 5k, finished in 15:02.02. Stensen, skating sixth, pipped the Dutchman’s time by a good nine seconds, finishing in 14:53.30. Two pairs later it was Kleine’s pair.
The 6ft 5in unemployed carpenter began in steady fashion and was behind Stensen for the first 12 laps. But in the final 13 laps he began to speed up – catching and then gradually pulling away from Stensen.
To general amazement, Kleine claimed gold with an Olympic record time of 14:50.59 – the second fastest performance ever, and just 0.28 off the Norwegian’s world-beating time.
A few weeks later, Kleine won the 1976 World Championships, claiming gold in the 1,500m and 10k races. Weeks later he broke the world record in the 5,000m, the 10,000m at a meet in West Germany. A new speed skating star was born, as would become evident in Lake Placid four years later.
Meanwhile, Stensen would finish his distinguished sporting career with no further Olympic medals.