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This Blair's repeating: more gold

DL; ALBERTVILLE, France

Zip! Read that little word as quickly as you can. Zip! C'mon, a little faster. Zip! By now, it's taking you maybe 0.02 seconds.

That's how much Bonnie Blair beat Ye Qiaobo by in Friday's 1,000-meter Albertville drama, the third Olympics win by a fluttering heartbeat for America's speed skater of gold.

Blair becomes history's first U.S. woman to bank three Winter Games gold medals, and her total margin of victory in those three races has been a scant 0.22 seconds, or less time than it takes to sneeze.

In the 1988 Calgary Games, the "Illinois Icewoman" finished first at 500 meters by 0.02 seconds. Zip! On Monday here in the Savoie, Blair outleaned Ye by 0.18 seconds in the 500. Bang! Then came Friday, and more Bonnie gold in the 1,000 by 0.02. Zip!

Middle America had another flag-waving, chest-pounding day at the XVI Olympics. "Da Blairs," those now-famous and delirious 45 friends and relatives of the golden U.S. heroine, left the icy ballpark in song. One more chorus of, "Our Bonnie lies over the ocean, our "

But let's also talk silver.

Ye was anything but devastated, losing to Blair on Albertville's windswept oval by a bang! and then a zip! Not after Qiaobo's trauma of 1988, when she left the Calgary Games under a steroid cloud and was hurried back to China in disgrace.

"On my way home," she said, speaking in English, "I prayed the airplane would crash, since I didn't know what I might say, especially to disappointed and confused family members."

Ye, now 27, says she was victimized by a Chinese Olympic team doctor. "He gave me medicine, saying it would make me better," she said in a delicate, believable voice. "It was supposed to be a mixture of mushrooms, wild flowers and Chinese herbs." When Ye was tested at a Milwaukee speed skating meet just prior to the Calgary Olympics, urine showed traces of steroids.

Ye went to Calgary but, before Olympic competition began, she would be ejected because of the Milwaukee test results.

Qiaobo's father runs a newspaper in Beijing, but not even he would report the speed skater's side of the story, about the Chinese Olympic doctor's role in her downfall.

Ye was suspended from speed skating for 15 months. She went into hiding, fearful of being repeatedly embarrassed in public.

Oh, ye, of little faith.

"I decided to quit skating," said the 5-foot-4 athlete, "but a special friend kept encouraging me to fight back. My friend said I was a little flower that had not been allowed to open."

As Ye spoke, she cupped her tiny hands together, to simulate an unblossomed flower. Then, with a smile, Qiaobo slowly opened her hands, as though to say, "Finally I blossom in Albertville."

Her silver in the 500 was the first Winter Olympics medal ever won by an Asian woman. Her two silvers, from the bang-zip! losses to Blair, are the only Winter Games medals ever claimed by China.

After her inaugural medal, Ye couldn't stop crying. Tears flowed like the Yangtze River. Happy weeping; relieved weeping. Ye, thanks to her special unnamed friend, and eventually restored personal faith, had achieved Olympics vindication.

Gold would've been grand for Qiaobo, but silver medals were also magic. Even if she did lose the Olympic 500 meters to Bonnie by 0.18 seconds, when a rival skater interferred with Ye's path and "probably cost me two-tenths." Even if, on Friday, the indefatigable woman from China finished 1,000 meters an infinitesimal 0.02 seconds behind the wondrous Blair.

"My plan is to skate again in 1994 at Lillehammer (Norway)," Ye vowed. "Maybe I can improve and someday beat Bonnie Blair. Maybe even in those Olympic Games."

She's a mini-fraction away.

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