Torino #3 1/2: A Short Track Speed skating Primer

A short track primer: 

Attached is a summary of the sport of short track that I wrote up for the broadcast team. It, I think, is one of the first detailed descriptions of the sport from the insider’s view…


Basics: The logistics of the sport of short track speedskating are easy to comprehend. A simple visual will suffice: inside the nicked and gauged plastic walls surrounding hockey rinks the world over an oval track is laid out using black plastic lane markers - 7 of them per corner, with one center, or apex block. The total course distance is 111.12 meters in length. 9 laps = 1000 meters.  Add a few speedskaters in their skin tight multi-colored suits racing not for time, but for the finish line – like track and field or horse racing – and the simple format is complete.  

Short track rink layout The fundamental metrics of short track speedskating are also straightforward – a fixed number of laps (or half laps) comprising an even distance in meters (500, 1000, 1500, 3000 or 5000 meters representing 4.5, 9, 13.5, and 27 laps respectively), with the first skater across the line being first.  Time on the stopwatch, while an interesting anecdote, does not factor into the results for the Olympic games. 

Racing: yet, like many things in life that seem straightforward, the actual play by play of the sport tends to defy the simplicity of its rules. Crashes, interference, and disqualifications factor into the results at levels unprecedented in any other sport, and even in “clean” races, the dynamics involved with multiple competitors lined up on a tight, short, narrow track of ice going 35 mph on 1mm wide, 18 inch blades means that the “fastest” skater quite often does not win.  One need only to remember watching the Australian Stephen Bradbury in the 2002 Olympics, who advanced by luck of disqualifications in the 1000 meter heats to qualify for the semi finals.

Self admittedly the slowest skater in those semi-finals, he proceeded to win that race - after all the other skaters crashed, placing him in the finals and into the medal round. Then again in the finals, while pacing off the back of a pack of top ranked USA, Korean, and Canadian skaters, Bradbury managed to avoid a disasterous crash that took out all four leading skaters and come across the line first – again not through his own merits – rather through the misfortune of the otherskaters. The gold medal was his – even though his efforts in all the preceding rounds in that race suggested those of a non-contender.  

Given the seeming randomness of the results, one might be inclined to shake ones head and put the whole thing down as a bit of a lottery. One thing is for sure, in any given race, luck will play a part. It is this unpredictability that makes it the crowd favorite for all the other athletes at the Olympics.

Analogies: Short track tends to draw two analogies in sports – first, Nascar – due to the importance of drafting and the critical path skaters must follow to maximize their speed, and second, horseracing, for the relative importance of the track conditions and race length in the final result.  Who will win on any given day? It depends…. 

·         Is the ice soft or hard?  How long is the race?

·         Who's fit? Who's strong? Who's going to take risks?

·         What combination of skaters are are racing? How will it play out?

·         What unforeseen events will occur?  

 What does it feel like? Remember those times of walking on slick, wet ice – to your car across frozen puddles, or down the sidewalk after a freezing rain?  Conversely, remember that moment when your shoes first touched dry asphalt after sliding across the puddle, or the instant when you regained traction after passing back underneath the porch roof?

To a speedskater, that is exactly it feels like to be on ice with our long blades – it is feeling of traction and grip, stability and power. 

A 17” speedskating blade on perfectly smooth ice is grippier than rubber on asphalt and more stable than a ski on snow. The blade, its sharp edge, and its tracking ability while in motion, are able to smoothly receive every ounce of energy provided by powerful leg muscles to propel the skater forward. Granted, the motion is sideways – like tacking in the wind with a sailboat - but the 17 inch blade is like yards of canvas gathering wind. The lateral forces of the skater's powerful quadriceps are released to the ice in a tangential motion and converted to forward speed smoothly yet powerfully. Each stroke on the ice is a combination brute force (sheer power) and ballet (no wasted motion, fluid extension to the very tips of the range).  

Now imagine that ultimate grip – on good ice no amount of effort will result in a slip – with a slow concentrated push from the legs - massive force passing in liquid slow motion through the blade to the ice.  The strength of the contracted leg is absolute, and the hold of the blade provides an supreme feeling of power.

The controlled release of the piston-like skating strokes brings to mind the action of a hydraulic cylinder – a fluid, consistent, and powerful extension. If you have ever had the ill-fortune to push a stalled car, and were lucky enough to have a curb or wall as a backstop for your feet, then that incredible push you were able to deliver to the car to get it moving is the closest thing in life to the feeling of a speedskating stroke. Speedskaters regularly push over 1000lbs cleanly on the hip-sleigh in the gym.

Now, add to this powerful motion the g-force dynamics of a jet fighter and you have the right combination.  As a skater moves towards the corner, there is a momentary feeling of weightlessness as the body lifts with the final skate stroke, and then falls as the body and center of gravity compress downward and sideways to enter the corner.  As the direction of the skater changes, centripetal forces cause a 2G acceleration to crush the body lower (double your weight). In order to stay aligned over the center of the 1mm blades, the skater rolls inward, and the upper body leans way out over the blocks. The powerful motion of the crossovers (corner strokes) then take over and compel the the preservation of the momentum carried into the corner. Timed right, you’ll see the powerful combination of the full extension of the left leg underneath the right leg (the 'classic' speedskating pose) with both blades carving firmly just prior to the apex of the corner (the center-most block).  

Having two feet down at that precarious moment preserves the integrity of the corner and allows the skater to enter a “pivot” – a one footed completion of the change of direction back toward the far end of the rink, and then begin to relax the arc of the corner a bit through the latter half – reducing the G forces and allowing multiple crossover strokes of acceleration into the straightaway. The apex block is also the focal point of most crashes and many disqualifications.

At this point of the turn the muscles of the body are stressed to the max – imagine squatting down to a 90 degree bend on one leg… holding it, and then putting on a 150lb backpack (the additional pressure provided by the 2G acceleration of the turn). Then balance all of that on a 1mm blade while leaning over far enough to put your elbow on the ground… 

As the skater exits the corner, the body decompresses and lifts with the center of gravity returning to vertical. A pair of straightway strokes later, and it starts again.  

Is it hard? This extremely controlled and concise motion is difficult. However – the motions are repetitive – unlike ballet, gymnastics, or figure skating the number of required motions is drastically reduced. That said though, the real difficulty of the sport lies in the constant compression of the body required to form the aerodynamic shape. Wind resistance, ultimately, is the primary obstacle to speed. If speedskating races were held a vacuum, a skater could stand nearly upright and kick out a series of highly powerful shallow strides in rapid sequence to attain maximum speed. However, with the friction of wind the comes with speeds approaching 40 mph, the skater is required to try and form a teardrop shape, with arms and legs bent in a greater than 90 degree angle.

The loss of muscular leverage at these compressed angles is severe – I won’t try to describe the physics, but just imagine these two examples:  1) Imagine if you had someone sitting on your shoulders. Now, in a fully upright standing position, imagine bending your knees slightly and then straightening them again. If you can imagine that situation, you probably can imagine that performing that minor knee bend and subsequent straightening would be very easy. The human body’s power output from near-full extension of the muscles involved is tremendous. Most of us could imagine even jumping a little with that weight on our back. However, this position is ineffective due to the constraints of wind resistance.

Instead… 2) Imagine squatting down – all the way down, sitting on your heels. Then extend one leg straight out – kind of a Russian dancer stance. Now imagine lifting the heel of the extended leg up off the ground. Finally try to stand up using only the completely bent leg’s power: nearly impossible for anyone other than an acrobat, Russian dancer, or speedskater. Do that with double your weight and you have the pivotal moment of the sport.  The compressed body position required by the aerodynamics of the sport demands high power from the legs in a full range of motion, with an extreme amount of coordination of balance and timing, and an alignment of weight and effort. These subtle refinements require a series of heretofore unused muscles in the abdomen, hip, knee, and ankle to constantly adjust to ensure that the powerful compressed stroke passes evenly sideways without interruption or slippage.  

This is why few that have started the sport after age 13 succeed, and how a 25 year old skater with 5 years of experience will still look like an awkward novice compared to a 10 year old with the same experience. After some point, the synapses required for the exquisite control wither away and cannot be trained. (See an interesting article by Daniel Coyle on this topic: How to Grow a Super Athlete - )  The only exception to this hard and fast rule is the relatively recent crossover of in-line athletes. Not surprising considering the similarities of the two sports. 

Why all the disqualifications? In the relatively recent years since short track speedskating has entered the mainstream consciousness, it has brought along with it the expected perceptions of speed and danger and unpredictability. In addition, there also exists an ongoing element of controversy with regards to the judging system and the calls for disqualification (or lack thereof) that have occurred in many of Olympic races. In the first few Olympics where short track took place (1992, 1994) the din centered around two time gold medalist American Kathy Turner in the women’s races. In 2002 the men took on their fair share of the controversies: 

In 1994 the protest and accusations swirled around Turner and her aggressive skating en-route to winning gold in the 500m. First there was controversy in the face of an early collision with Natalie Lambert of Canada in the heats, and then in the final there was contact with the Chinese champion Zhang Yanmei - who claimed that Turner had grabbed her leg en-route to her second consecutive gold medal. 

In 1998 the women’s 500m final provided yet another interesting footnote in the sport, with Isabel Charest of Canada taking out Wang Chunlu of China and drawing a foul in the process. Wang did not finish the requisite number of laps, so with Charest and Wang out, the bronze medal was awkwardly awarded to a skater not even in the race – South Korea’s Chun Lee-Kyung – who had won the B-final. 

Which brings us back to 2002, where in the1500m mens final, a disqualification of Korean skater Kim Dong Song led to a gold medal – a first for American men – being awarded to Apolo Ohno who physically crossed the line second. However, the controversial nature of the call, and the dearth of medals for the strong team of Korean men led to highly publicized death threats from the Korean public. When Apolo returned to Korea for the first time since the 2002 Olympics for the 2005 world championships, he was met at the airport by 100 policemen in full riot regalia – just in case.  

Then, of course there was the 1000 meter incident with Bradbury… 

One unexpected outcome of all the uncertainty in the sport of short track is cultural in nature. One might expect that with all of the clashes and crashes, disqualifications and controversy that the tensions between rival teams and competitors might be very high: that the close proximity in the races might result in a natural distancing factor between athletes off ice and outside the venue.  Surprisingly, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

A look at the sister sport of long track speedskating, a sport with no physical contact, few to no disqualifications, and racers competing almost clinically against the clock (in separate lanes and only two at a time) finds a culture where competitive tensions are at their highest. Long Track speedskaters are, more often than not, solitary, taciturn creatures, with serious countenances betraying the competitive tension embodied in every activity.  Short track skaters, in contrast tend to convivial, open and playful, with the occasional prank between and within teams a long standing tradition – a culture where each emotional explosion at referees for a disqualifaction (or lack thereof) is equally matched by the off ice hijinks, stories and accompanying laughter between the skaters in their locker rooms, in the shared spaces playing hackysack, and back at the hotel over dinner.

It as if the vagaries of the sport, the unpredictability of the results, and the shared suffering of uncertainty over the whims of lady luck has created a common culture of tolerance, humility and respect between athletes of different cultures, languages and perspectives. In deference to this very real aspect of the sport, there is an oft repeated, little understood phrase repeated consistently by the competitors that ultimately reflects this shared understanding - a phrase that tends to sound awkward without all of the context behind it.

This phrase was aptly quoted by our own Apolo Ohno. Apolo was interviewed on camera just after the 2002 Olympic 1000 meter gold medal race where he had crossed the finish line sprawled across the ice, belly up, in second place after being taken down from behind by a four skater chain reaction crash in the final corner. He had just lost certain gold to the unlikely Australian Steven Bradbury who glided in on the wings of lady luck – well out of contention - yet the winner of the coveted gold medal. Asked for his views on the events that had unfolded, it would have been understandable if  Apolo had been less than charitable, especially given the stiches he would undergo, and the scrutiny he received for his "lucky" prior finish, and the fact that he was clearly intefered with… Apolo could have said things such as “it was unfair, I had it in the bag, the Korean skater grabbed my leg, Steven wasn’t even a contender…” but true to the culture of the sport, and out of respect for the dozens, if not hundreds of races that Steven didn’t win under similar circumstances, Apolo merely shrugged, smiled, and uttered those those seemingly innocuous yet significant words repeated over and over in this turbulent and exciting world: “That’s Short Track.”  

It sure is.

John K coyle