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St. Moritz 1948

Helgesen prevails as 500m speed skating goes to the wire

Sophisticated timing machinery was not yet part of the Olympic Winter Games, but don't be fooled into thinking that some of the races weren't incredibly closely fought. The speed skating 500m was a great case in point – the timing clocks were pushed to their limit by a contest that turned out to be one of the narrowest finishes in Winter Olympic history.

Finn Helgesen was the seventh of ten children and had been a fine skater since his youth. He began training for speed skating in 1945 and, once the Second World War had ended, he rapidly emerged as one of Norway's top speed skaters. While others were allround experts, Helgesen's brilliance lay simply in speed – over short distances, his strength and power were hard to beat.

He had won the Norwegian championship at 500m in 1947 and so came to St Moritz in confident mood for the qualification race, which was scheduled for just a few days before the Games. It was nearly a chastening experience, with Helgesen only just qualifying as the fourth of four skaters with Sverre Farstad beating Thomas Byberg and Torodd Hauer. Helgesen now knew he would have to improve to come anywhere near a medal.

The Norwegians and Americans were expected to do well, the lack of international competition for many years meant few could confidently say what might happen. In fact, nobody predicted the outcome.

First the American Bobby Fitzgerald set an impressive time of 43.2 seconds, followed by another American, Ken Henry, on 43.3 seconds. Helgesen competed in 12th race and, despite never previously skating the distance faster than 43.7 seconds, he crossed the line in 43.1 to take the lead.

But the battle was not over. American's Ken Bartholemew overcame a series of false starts and a last-corner fall by Canada's Craig McKay to finish in 43.2 seconds, tying with Fitzgerald in second place. A few races later, Byberg also tied their time, but nobody could beat Helgesen. He took gold, with three skaters tied for the silver medal.

Four years later Helgesen raced in another Olympic final that was notable for being close fought, but this time the luck went against him. He set a time that was good enough for bronze - but so did two other skaters and, on the count-back rules used in that year’s event, he was placed just fifth.

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