Winter Olympics: Speed Skating

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
2014 Winter Olympics

The Olympic demolition derby

Dan Jansen

Dan Jansen

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In the 1998 and 2002 Games, there were two women on the Chinese short-track team with the name Yang Yang. To distinguish them, one went by Yang Yang (A), while the other by Yang Yang (S).

Short Track

It's been called the demolition derby of the Olympics. In short-track speed skating, competitors squeeze into a tight oval track measuring just 111 meters (364 ft) around. At full speed, they jockey for position and often bump one another. Spills are frequent and sometimes nasty.

Though short-track speed skating dates back to the late 1800's, the sport didn't become an officially recognized Olympic event until the 1992 Albertville Games.

The competition consisted of four events in 1992, but was expanded to eight in 2002:

  • 500 meters (men's and women's)
  • 1,000 meters (men's and women's)
  • 1,500 meters (men's and women's)
  • 3,000 meter relay (women's)
  • 5,000 meter relay (men's)

In the 500- and 1,000-meter events, four skaters are on the track for each heat, while in the 1,500-meter event there are six skaters on the ice. The thrilling speed skating relay events, unlike running relays, do not involve handing off batons. Instead the athletes are simply given a push by their teammates when it's time to skate.

In the 2010 Games in Vancouver, Canada, American skater Apolo Ohno took one silver and two bronze medals, bringing his total haul to eight career medals, surpassing Bonnie Blair as the all-time winningest U.S. Winter Olympian. Overall, South Korea led the pack, with eight medals, taking two golds, four silver, and two bronze. China won four medals—all gold. The U.S. won six medals, two silver and four bronze. J.R. Celski, who won two bronze medals in Vancouver, is expected to lead the American men in short track in Sochi. Ohno, now retired, will provide commentary for NBC. On the women's side, Katherine Reutter, who won a silver and bronze in 2010, is not competing at Sochi. Jessica Smith and Emily Scott are hoping to make it to the podium.

Long Track

The type of speed skating that most Americans are familiar with is the long-track variety. And for that, we have Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair, and Dan Jansen to thank.

Heiden won a record five golds (all from the 1980 Lake Placid Games) and Blair earned five golds and a bronze. And while Jansen may have just one medal to his credit, few could forget his world-record-setting, gold-medal performance in the 1,000-meters in 1998, after falling twice in 1992 on the same day his sister died, then again failing to medal in 1994.

Men's speed skating has been an Olympic sport since the first Winter Games in 1924. Women's speed skating became an official event in 1960 at Squaw Valley.

There are currently ten events in long track:

  • 500 meters (men's and women's)
  • 1,000 meters (men's and women's)
  • 1,500 meters (men's and women's)
  • 5,000 meters (men's and women's)
  • 3,000 meters (women's)
  • 10,000 meters (men's)

Though speed skating can be traced back to England in the mid-1700's, the Netherlands is widely considered the sport's birthplace.

The U.S. took home four medals in the 2010 Games; one gold, two silver, and a bronze. The gold was claimed by veteran medal winner Shani Davis, who is expected to dominate the ice in Sochi. For the women, hopes are high for Heather Richardson, the current world sprint champion.

Since 1998, when the "clap" skate was officially approved for Olympics competition, speed records have been set at…a record pace. The skate is a technological breakthrough in which the blade actually detaches from the heel of the skate, allowing for it to stay on the ice longer.

All speed skating events will take place at the Adler Arena Skating Center.

by Beth Rowen

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