GANGNEUNG, South Korea — More times than not in short-track speedskating, it takes some slowing down to sort things out. That is why most races have two finishes.
The first is not much more than a blur, skaters darting in and out of traffic, colors whirling in a tight pack around tight ovals, one or more occasionally spit from orbit and sent crashing into thick safety pads at the rink’s edges.
That is exciting. There are cheers and groans as the survivors cross the finish line and the results light the scoreboard.
And then everything slows, almost to a stop, as if the whole event needs to make up for its chaos and find its equilibrium. The race is not always over. Referees huddle at the side wearing headphones and watching monitors, playing and replaying the replays. Fans in the arena and at home see replays, too. Athletes wait nervously for the verdict. Minutes pass.
Finally, the second finish. It is official. Sometimes the real-time results stand. Other times they are shuffled. There are cheers and groans, again, and often shock, and occasionally hugs and tears.
In short-track speedskating, the races are fast. The reviews are slow. That is especially true at the Olympics, where getting calls right is the ultimate premium. Nearly every race in which athletes bump or fall down — that is most of them — ends, and then starts again on the screen.
There may be no sport anywhere with such a dire need for replay reviews, nor one that uses it so often and for so long, which is just how the sport wants it.
“There’s so much happening in short track, and everything happens so fast, and they’re watching anywhere from four to eight athletes at a time,” said Derrick Campbell, coach of the powerful Canadian team. “The coaches and the athletes appreciate it because it’s such a big event. So if they go to the video too much, or spend too much time, that’s a good thing. We want them to be sure of the calls.”
That was before the highly controversial end to the women’s 3,000-meter relay on Tuesday night. South Korea, China and Canada, all powers and fierce rivals, were in the finals with Italy. There was jostling and nudging throughout. During a crowded relay exchange where one teammate leaving the ice pushes another for the next leg — the sport’s version of passing the baton — South Korean and Chinese skaters collided and fell.
The race went on. South Korea crossed the line first. China was second. Canada was third. It wasn’t over.
South Koreans, at least one in tears, were afraid they had lost in disgrace. Chinese skaters held hands as they awaited their fate. Canadians and Italians gazed up to the scoreboard, nervously waiting for the final results.
The news came in a flash, then rippled throughout the arena. China and Canada — to its collective bewilderment — were disqualified. South Korea won gold. Italy was lifted to silver. And the Netherlands, which was not even in the race, was handed the bronze by virtue of winning the consolation race earlier.
So much for replay settling controversies. But in a different way, more like a reality television show, it was almost as exciting as the race itself. By luck or design, short-track speedskating has created double doses of suspense with its use of replay review, that much-maligned act of self-correction put to increasing use across the spectrum of sports, from football to tennis, baseball to hockey.
“That’s the strategy,” Apolo Ohno, the retired American short-track star, said jokingly, adding that his only real complaints with all the reviews is the time they can take and the lack of cameras to show every possible angle. But using humans to judge something that can look superhuman will never be perfect, he said. Replay helps make up for it.
“Until someone figures out an incredible A.I. algorithm that can do this on a consistent basis, I think we’ll always have to use human beings,” Ohno said.
And let them look at what happened, over and over in slow motion, until they discern what they think they saw.
Replay does not quell controversy, because answers are rarely definitive. The rules are subjective, and controversies are frequent. Most violations fall under the broad category of impeding, which captures all manners of getting in someone else’s way, intentionally.
“There’s still a lot of gray area in the rules,” Campbell said.
Replay reviews can drive fans batty and fuel their own controversies — much as they do in, say, the N.F.L. — but coaches and athletes do little public complaining.
“Everyone in short track has been on both sides of the stick,” said Ohno, doing commentary for NBC during the Olympics. “On one end, you’ve gotten the penalty, and you’ve been mad, and you think, ‘I don’t agree with that at all.’ But on the other end, you’ve received some passes as well. It comes with a roll of the dice.”
Replay was instituted after the 2002 Winter Games, where Ohno finished second to the South Korean star Kim Dong-sung in the 1,500-meter final. Ohno thought he had been impeded by Kim as he tried to catch up near the finish, animatedly making his point.
The referee agreed. Kim was disqualified. Ohno was awarded the gold medal.
Ohno, as big an American star as any other Olympian, was instantly cast as a villain in South Korea, where the incident fueled a wave of anti-American sentiment. Ohno received death threats, and a video game was created in which players could shoot him. A South Korean company produced toilet paper with Ohno’s face on it.
Kim, meanwhile, received a hero’s welcome and a consolation gold medal when he returned to South Korea after the Games.
In a quest familiar across sports, short track looked to minimize such officiating controversies by joining the trend toward video review. Now it is a familiar follow-up to the action.
On Tuesday night, in the first heat of the men’s 500-meter qualifiers, the Australian skater Andy Jung tripped but stayed upright, then quickly bumped into the American Aaron Tran on a corner. Jung fell and slid toward the safety pads, taking out a French skater on the way. Tran finished second, in position to advance to the quarterfinals.
After a long review, however, he was disqualified, and the third-place Polish skater moved to second to advance instead.
Nearly all eight heats were reviewed. Five penalties were assessed.
It happened just as often with the women’s 1,000-meter heats, where reviews were conducted on six of the eight races, and six penalties were handed down, sometimes adding insult to injury.
Britain’s Elise Christie, a world champion, fell at the start of Tuesday’s race on a sore ankle but recovered enough to finish second, good enough to advance to the next round before she was carried away by a coach. Once gone, she was penalized for bumping into a competitor and disqualified.
The race before, Jessica Kooreman of the United States, who finished fourth in the 1,000 meters at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, tried to cut inside to pass on a corner and got a skate tangled with Canada’s Valerie Maltais. Kooreman stumbled but stayed upright but finished third and did not advance to the quarterfinals.
It was likely the last race of Kooreman’s career, as she said after the race that she would retire at age 34. No one took a second look. The referee did not need to see the entanglement a second time, apparently.
“It’s called short track,” Kooreman said afterward with a verbal shrug.
It does not always make sense the first time. Sometimes, it never does.
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