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After showing great promise in nationwide speed skating competitions, a 21-year-old Irving Jaffee (USA) was selected for the US Olympic team bound for the St. Moritz Games in 1928, where he finished fourth in the 5,000m and posted the best time of the 10,000m heats, outstripping reigning world champion Bernt Evensen (NOR). Unfortunately, the latter competition was controversially cancelled following a significant rise in temperature and a consequent thawing of the ice.
Four years later, the New Yorker was invited back to participate in the “packstyle” races on the rink in the Lake Placid Olympic Stadium. The 5,000m was held on the first day of competitive action, in the wake of the 500m won so convincingly by Jack Shea. The event began with two heats featuring no fewer than nine racers, with the first four finishers guaranteed a place in the final. Jaffee finished first in one heat, while Evensen dominated the other.
The final started off at a deceptively gentle pace, as none of the eight medal hopefuls dared to take charge. With roughly two laps to go, Jaffee made his move. Evensen initially went with him, but bumped into Harry Smyth (CAN) and came close to falling, obstructing Norwegian compatriot Ivar Ballangrud. Jaffee took advantage of this confusion, pulling away to cross the line in 9:40.08, comfortably ahead of Eddie Murphy (USA) and (CAN).
The 10,000m final, held four days later, was another tense affair. Jaffee, keen to make up for the let-down he experienced in 1928, surged to the front in the 24th and final lap of the rink, as skaters stumbled and fell all around him. At the finish line, the 5,000m champion threw himself forward onto the ice, snatching his second gold medal of the Games just ahead of Ballangrud, while Frank Stack and Edwin Wedge (USA) fell as they both attempted to claim third place. Jaffee’s success completed a clean sweep of the medals for US speed skaters, evidently more at home with the unique format that their European rivals.
Lake Placid was Jaffee’s final Olympic adventure. He later managed a winter sport resort in the Catskills (New York State), set a 25-mile world speed skating record in 1934 and trained several elite skaters. He passed away on 20 March 1981, aged 74.