With 20 total medal events, the speed skating competition spans the length of an entire Olympics and has become one of the more exciting aspects of the Winter Games.
As the Sochi Olympics approach in February 2014, many sports fans eagerly anticipate the high-speed action of these dramatic races. While long track skating is notable for the ability to achieve the top speeds of mankind on level ground and without external power, short track skating provides all the excitement one expects in any form of pack racing.
Here is a look at 10 of the basic rules and requirements for Olympic speed skating:
Long Track Speed Skating
One of two forms of Olympic competition, this sport possesses a much longer history, as it traces back to the initial Winter Games held in France in 1924. In fact, when thinking of speed skating, these are the more traditional events, previously associated with American skating greats like Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair. Using a longer rink of 400 meters in length, skaters build up tremendous speeds and create rapid excitement in the onlooking crowd. There are 12 total events, including men's and women's 500m, 1,000m, 1,500m, and 5,000m, men's 10,000m, women's 3,000m, and two team pursuit events.
Short Track Speed Skating
Though not added as a medal event until 1992, short track speed skating has surged in popularity, largely due to recent success by Apolo Anton Ohno, who has become the most decorated American Winter Olympian of all time. Though overall length of the races is often similar, short track events occur on smaller surfaces, which typically coincide with the size of an international ice hockey rink. Eight events are held in this competition, including men's and women's 500m, 1000m, and 1,500m, as well as women's 3,000m relay and men's 5,000m relay.
Speed skating skates are substantially different than footwear used for other ice activities, including hockey and figure skating. These skates offer a low boot and a blade longer than the rest of the foot, generally 42 -46 cm. The blade is typically flat and very thin, as the underside making contact with the ice measures just 1 mm across. One difference between skates designed for long and short track racing is that the blade for the faster long track version does not attach to the boot at the back of the skate. Instead, the blade here sits on a spring that provides increased pushing power and makes a clapping sound while it makes contact. Clap skates were first introduced at the 1998 Winter Games and have become standard equipment since.
Speed skaters wear skin-tight spandex suits designed to decrease wind resistance as the athlete pushes through the air. Long track skaters additionally wear a built-in hood that allows the suit to cover the entire body except for the face, which is shielded by protective glasses. Because short track skaters move in packs where contact is common, these Olympians were additional defensive gear, including a helmet, gloves, shin and knee pads, and neck guard.
When moving at speeds often exceeding 40 miles per hour, contact between skaters can be disastrous. One way that rules can minimize such accidents is by creating right-of-way that competitors are expected to follow. In long track racing, when two skaters need to switch lanes as they emerge from a corner simultaneously, the one in the outer lane has right-of-way to cross. In contrast, short track skating provides no such right-of-way. Positioning in the pack and deciding when to cross paths can prove determinate in winning and losing.
In both short and long track skating, competitors may not interfere with the progress of others. This includes a prohibition on pushing or other acts that intentionally impede contact. Unsportsmanlike behavior can result in disqualification and officials have authority to advance a fallen athlete based on such an infraction. Despite skating in packs, short track skaters may not intentionally block or change lanes for the purpose of cutting off another. Specifically, passing on the inside as a skater enters a corner is not allowed in either form of speed skating.
European System of Racing
Traditional long track events employ the European system of racing, in which skaters are paired two-by-two against one another and advance further into competition based on their time. Two 25-meter wide lanes are used and skaters switch from the inside to outside lane upon reaching the backstretch. The switch ensures that competitors skate the same distance, though those using the outside lane usually travel a bit faster due to the extra distance.
North American Pack Racing
Perhaps due to the continent's affinity for hockey, a diverse form of skating developed in North America, which was incorporated into Olympic competition with the arrival of short track speed skating in 1992. During these races, competitors race four at a time in heats, with the first two finishers advancing to the next round. Each participant starts at the same time and generally skates very close to one another. As a result, skill negotiating the pack and avoiding contact often determines outcome, making overall time less relevant to finishing up front.
Initially introduced at the 2006 Olympics, this pair of events has quickly produced some of the more thrilling moments of an entire Winter Games. Team pursuit is a form of long track racing waged between two teams of three competitors. The squads face off simultaneously by starting on opposite sides of the same inner lane and racing until one team reaches a certain distance. Adding to the excitement, it is possible to win a race by overtaking the other competitors on track, though this rarely occurs unless there is a fall.
Short Track Relay
In contrast to the team format of long track skating, short track relays involve one skater racing at a time, though the event is notable for the multitude of competitors on the ice. Five teams of three skaters compete for 3,000m or 5,000m and there is no formula for how many laps a particular skater can handle. While one set of skaters compete, two others warm up on the inside of the ice where they await their turn. Following a handoff, which typically occurs every one to two laps, the former skater pushes a replacement ahead to carry the baton for the team.
Jeff Briscoe is a longtime fan of Olympic competition and a regular contributor to the Yahoo Contributor Network. He will be talking Sochi 2014 on The Sports Train radio show in Southwest Florida.
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