Speedskating | Winter Olympics Spectator's Guide
An excerpt from "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games" by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Guide to the Winter Olympics
Prepare for the 2010 Games with excerpts and spectator's guides from "The Winter Olympics," by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.
Olympics Spectator's Guide
As a spectator sport, speedskating can range from thrilling, usually in shorter races, to painfully long, in the case of endurance races such as the 10,000 meters. But in every case, it’s a lively event at the Olympics, thanks to the hordes of mostly European—predominantly Dutch—speedskating fanatics who treat the sport like a religion.
Field of Play
Speedskaters compete on an ice oval measuring 400 meters (1,320 feet) around. (For reference purposes, think of a standard running track around a football field at your local university. It’s the same distance.) Lanes are 3 to 4 meters (9.8 to 13 feet) wide.
Skaters, like runners, go counterclockwise. Don’t ask; that’s just the way it is. This gives rise to jokes among skaters that all they ever do in life is turn left, turn left, turn left—and to the reality that many skaters walk around with one leg, the left one, looking much bigger than the right.
Racers compete at varying distances: The sprint races are 500 and 1,000 meters. Intermediate races are 1,500 and 3,000 meters. Grueling distance races are 5,000 and 10,000 meters. Finish times range from 35 to 40 seconds in the 500 to a full 12 minutes for the 10,000. Thus, most skaters specialize in short, middle, or long-distance races—except for the few true human freaks of nature, such as America’s Eric Heiden.
Here are the races and their corresponding numbers of laps:
- 500 meters: 1.25 laps
- 1,000 meters: 2.5 laps
- 1,500 meters: 3.75 laps
- 3,000 meters (women only): 7.5 laps
- 5,000 meters: 12.5 laps
- 10,000 meters (men only): 25 laps
Format, Rules, and Strategy
Skaters compete in pairs, and in all races except the 500 meters skate in designated inside and outside lanes until they reach the “crossing straight” on the track’s back straightaway—a zone in which they swap lanes, once per lap, to negate the distance advantage gained from skating the inside lane the entire way. Sometimes these crossings can get tricky, but the skater crossing from the outer lane to the inner lane always has the right-of-way should the competitors be even. Racers wear armbands—white for the inner lane and red for the outer—to help officials keep track of who started where. Collisions and obstructions can disqualify a skater and give the fouled skater a chance for a reskate.
If you fall, you can get back up and continue in longer races. But the race is usually lost the instant you start to go down.
The way you win in speedskating is not necessarily as it appears. Although skaters are paired head to head, time is the decision maker. The fastest time posted by any racer, no matter who his opponent was or how he fared, wins the event. That said, skaters prefer to race against fast opponents—a tight contest gets the adrenaline flowing and almost always produces faster times.
Although all the other events are single races, the 500 meters, at least since the Nagano Games of 1998, is run as two heats, with the lowest combined time winning. The reason is that the racer in the inside lane has a small distance advantage.
One exception to the formats described above is the team pursuit, a new event added to the lineup as of the 2006 Turin Games. It’s conducted like a professional track-cycling race: Two national teams of three skaters each begin on opposite sides of the track. Men race for eight laps, women six, and the last team member across the finish line marks the finishing time. Strategy, obviously, includes drafting off teammates and switching lead skaters to maximize time and efficiency. And you have to watch out for that other team.
Training and Equipment
Given the unnatural body positions, held under great stress for such long periods of time, the sport looks painful and difficult, even for its best practitioners. The truth? It is. No matter how good a skater gets at it, winning an Olympic medal against the world’s best is always going to require digging down deeper, crossing a pain threshold he or she probably never knew existed.
Sprint medalist Jennifer Rodriguez of Miami, asked what it’s like to cross the finish line in an elite-level race, said she really can’t say: Usually, she is so spent that her body is running on instinct, her oxygen level so depleted that she’s literally blacking out and can’t really see where she’s going.
Bottom line: Speedskaters don’t get those sculpted bodies simply by being naturally gifted. It’s the result of long, long hours of training, followed by recovery techniques such as full-body ice baths that few of us would likely endure once, let alone day after day for years.
Their tight-fitting speed suits, including hoods, are designed to minimize drag and save the precious fractions of a second that often determine placing. The suits are fitted with friction-reducing fabric under the armpits and inside the upper thighs. They also wear lightweight goggles to keep the wind out of their eyes—in full sprint, a speedskater can reach speeds in excess of 40 mph, making this the fastest human-powered sport of all. With the graceful, fluid movements of speedskating, it’s often easy to forget that the skaters are traveling at near-highway speeds.
Speedskates are ankle high, for improved mobility. The uppers are made of plastic or carbon fiber. Their blades are long and straight, up to 46 centimeters, or just over 18 inches long, and about 1 millimeter wide. They’re made of steel and extremely sharp. A fairly recent innovation, the “clap skate,” has improved skaters’ times by keeping the full length of that sharp blade on the ice for longer periods of time. Unlike earlier skates, in which the blade was fixed front and back on the boot, the clap skate blade is hinged under the forefoot, allowing the heel of the skate boot to lift off the blade. It increases the efficiency of each push-off stroke and also prevents stumbles late in races when skaters tire and become susceptible to digging their blade tips into the ice.
The clap skate debuted at the 1998 Nagano Games, and the result was striking: five world records were set, and new Olympic records were established in all eleven events.
Unlike their short-track skating cousins, long-track speedskaters do not wear helmets or other protective headwear, except for that hood.
Speedskating, perhaps more than any other winter sport, is all about precise form. When you’re in it, you’re a rhapsody on ice, flowing like the wind. But when you fall out of it, it’s painfully obvious to you, your Aunt Marla, and about 4 billion people watching on satellite around the globe. What’s good form? It’s all about gaining as much propulsion from each skate stroke as possible. In a straightaway, skaters are bent forward at the waist, head low, looking up just high enough to see forward, with their torsos almost parallel to the ice. They make long, powerful strokes with their glutes and quads, arms thrusting in perfect rhythm and staying in close contact with the torso. For much of the race (except in sprints), skaters will skate with one arm behind their back to reduce wind drag.
Watch the top racers carefully and see how much glide they wring out of every stride—and how they know instinctively when to stop riding that skate and begin a new stride before the momentum begins to wane.
Racers are almost constantly turning, with only a dozen or more strides on straightaways before that next big left. Cornering is key: Racers enter the turn still bent at the waist for a low center of gravity, with their inside arm tucked behind them. They swing the outside arm as a counter to centrifugal force, to fight the natural tendency to drift away from the turn—all the while making crossover steps, which are exactly what the name implies, to turn more sharply and efficiently.
It looks very difficult to bring all this together, especially when it’s the 25th turn you’ve made in the same race. And it is.
The only place where speedskating form differs dramatically is the start. Racers stand, one skate blade flat, the other on its front tip at the start line, arms cocked in skate-stride position, waiting for the starting gun. They then sprint on both skate tips, arms pumping, until they reach a speed suitable for skate strides. It looks quite awkward, but quick reflexes and powerful running strides here are crucial, especially in shorter races, where a bad start can leave a skater doomed from the get-go.
In longer-distance races, pacing is every bit as crucial as in a distance race in track and field. Racers usually decide beforehand how fast they plan to skate every lap and even how many strides they should take per lap. That plan sometimes goes out the window if they make a mistake by stumbling or falling—fates that can befall even the best skaters
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