1980: Heiden's Gold Heist

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

The man who won the speed skating equivalent of a sprint, a marathon, and everything in between

by John Gettings
Eric Heiden Skating for the Gold, 1980

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While covering the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., Washington Post reporter Leonard Shapiro described American speed skater Eric Heiden as "a Secretariat on skates."

But not even the legendary thoroughbred champion, accustomed to two-minute sprints, could likely follow the ice tracks laid down by Heiden over those nine days in February.

The 21-year-old Wisconsin native won five individual gold medals in speed skating. He won the speed skating equivalent of a sprint, a marathon, and everything in between.

He set five Olympic records and one world record, and defeated every single one of the 144 athletes competing in the five events.

His medal haul began with a .34-second victory in the 500-meter race over Yevgeny Kulikov the defending Olympic champion and world record holder. The next day he defeated world record holder Kai Arne Stenshjemmet in the 5,000-meter race by more than a second.

Three days later he won the 1,000-meter race by 1.5 seconds, and 48 hours after that he captured his fourth gold, in the 1,500-meter race. Both of thoese victories were over Norway's Kai Arne Stenshjemmet.

The night before his final event Heiden watched the U.S. men's hockey team's " Miracle on Ice" upset of the Soviet Union in the tournament semifinals. The hockey team, which would later defeat Finland in the finals, won the only non-Heiden gold for the U.S. at the 1980 Games.

On the next-to-last day of competition, Heiden skated in the 10,000-meter race, attempting to win his fifth gold medal. Shapiro describes the scene at the Olympic Speed Skating Oval:

"There were 3,000 (people) on the inside and hundreds more peeking over fences, leaning over balconies of nearby restaurants, and even hanging in trees."

Heiden didn't disappoint. He calmly and methodically smashed the world record by 6.2 seconds, winning in 14:28.13.

His five gold medals is still a U.S. Olympic record for a single Winter Games.

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