Speed skating had an established star in USA competitor Bonnie Blair, and she arrived in Norway surrounded by a huge amount of interest. She had already won three Olympic gold medals – could she really add to that tally at the age of 29, and with a decade of tough competition behind her?
It wasn’t that her fitness was in any doubt, but speed skating is a demanding sport and Blair had always been one of its hardest-working competitors. Her victories had often been the result of gruelling battles, sealed by tiny margins.
This was her fourth Olympic Games. She had won gold in the 500m at the previous two, as well as a 1,000m gold in Albertville to go with the bronze from the same event in Calgary. Once more, those were the two races in which she was expected to excel. And there was an added incentive, if any were needed – no woman had ever before won a speed skating event at three consecutive Games.
That challenge came early, in the 500m. Blair was the strong favourite. She had won the world championship a few weeks before the Games, had dominated the world cup 500m, held the world record and had a decade of Olympic experience behind her.
Her performance was immaculate. From the start, she looked perfectly in control and crossed the line in 39.25 secs, a time that nobody else came near to matching. Second placed Susan Auch, from Canada, was 0.36 secs slower, a significant margin in this high-speed sport, giving Blair her three-in-a-row record.
She no doubt expected a tougher challenge in the 1,000m. In fact, Blair enjoyed a victory that was even more emphatic. She set a time of 1 min 18.74 secs, beating the field by nearly a second and a half and winning the fifth gold medal of her illustrious career.Later in 1994, she became the first female skater to complete the 500m in under 39 secs. She retired from competitive skating in 1995, having become the first American woman to win five Olympic gold medals in either Summer or Winter Games.