Speed skater Maier makes his mark over 5,000m

Speed skater Fred Anton Maier was a very talented sportsman. He had skated his way to both a silver and bronze medal in the 1964 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck but his preparation for the Grenoble Games was not quite the utter dedication to the ice as you might expect.

Picture by IOC

Maier was also a keen cyclist and had won a bronze medal in the national Norwegian time trial championships in 1957, when he was just 18 years old. Ten years later, and less than a year before his return to the Olympic arena in search of his first gold medal, he entered the national cycling championships again – and once more came away with a bronze medal.

After that, though, it was all about the skating. Maier was aiming at both the 5,000m and 10,000m contests in Grenoble, events at which he held the world record. Just a few weeks before the Olympic Games began, he won European titles at both events. His form seemed assured – but, as so many athletes have discovered over the years, the Olympic competition brings a unique set of pressures.

His first contest was the 5,000m, where the greatest challenge was likely to come from Kees Verkerk of the Netherlands. Verkerk went in the third pair and lived up to expectation, moving ahead of Maier's world record pace and eventually finishing in a time of 7mins 23.2secs – a new record.

Maier was in the fifth pair, now aware that he would have to produce the fastest time in history to win gold. For the first 1500m, he was precisely on Verkeerk's pace but then he accelerated slightly. By the halfway point, he was notably ahead of schedule and, as he crossed the finishing line, Maier was clocked at 7mins 22.4secs, good enough to retake the world record and claim his first gold medal.

Few doubted he would win again two days later in the 10,000m. This time, he was drawn to go off in the first pair, but still his time was outstanding, obliterating the Olympic record by a daunting 26 seconds. It was not a world record, though, falling more than three seconds outside his own best time. However, when Verkeerk, skating in the third pair, failed to go faster, the gold seemed as good as won.

Most observers had counted without Sweden's Johnny Höglin, and for good reason. Despite being a familiar face on the circuit, Höglin had never finished in a podium position. Yet here he was, matching Maier's pace for kilometre after kilometre and then, in the closing 1200m, actually going ahead of it. He hung on to win one of the most surprising gold medals the sport has known.

Maier was disappointed but undeterred. A few weeks later, he again won the world championship titles at 5,000m and 10,000m. During 1968, he set seven world records.