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.
Short-track racers wear the same types of uniforms and similar skates, at least to outward appearances, as their long-track speedskating counterparts. But the similarities end there. Where long track is a graceful, fluid pursuit of speed in a race against the clock, short track is a raucous, short-strided race around a relatively tiny oval. Skaters are turning at extreme angles much of the time, and body contact, while limited by rules, is a constant part of the sport. Crashes are frequent. In long track, skaters occasionally fall, but when they do, it’s usually due to their own misstep. In short track, a racer can do everything right and still get taken out in a collision by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The sport often lives up to its billing as “NASCAR on ice.” That constant, on-the-edge uncertainty is challenging for the athletes, but for spectators, it makes short track one of the most thrilling of all Olympic winter sports.
Field of Play
Short-track races unfold in the middle of what usually doubles as a hockey rink, on an oval course that’s 111.12 meters (364.57 feet) around. The course is marked by small rubber pylons placed on the ice. The ice rink is ringed by thick, foam pads, designed to blunt the impact of racers who lose an edge in a turn and hurtle at high speeds into the sideboards.
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Olympic short-track racers compete in 500-, 1,000-, and 1,500-meter individual races, as well as a 5,000-meter team relay for men and a 3,000-meter relay for women. A longer individual race, the 3,000 meters, is sometimes run at the World Cup but, as yet, not in the Olympics.
Competitors are given a standing start and then race counterclockwise (skaters turn only left) in a pack around the course. The course is always the same size—only the number of laps changes with longer races.
The 500-meter sprint is only 4.5 laps long, placing greater emphasis on the start. The 1,500 meters is 13.5 laps. In that race, competitors typically lollygag off the start line, racing around slowly while measuring up the competition and jockeying for position until a sprint to the finish over the final few laps. Time is kept, but it’s irrelevant: First skate across the line wins—a judgment that’s sometimes not made until an instant replay can show, with a freeze frame reminiscent of a photo finish in a horse race, who got there first.
Ironically, however, the person crossing the finish line first in short track often is not the official winner. Referees can—and frequently do—penalize skaters for having interfered with or “impeded” another at some point in the race. Disqualifications are common and are a source of great frustration to racers who think they’ve trained for and won an Olympic gold medal, only to see it snatched away by what clearly is a judgment call.
The sport often is compared to roller derby and auto racing, but in truth, only light contact is allowed. Most of the time, skaters are crouched, sprinting down straightaways and then shifting into nearly horizontal turn positions, their knife-edged skates clinging to keep them upright as they drop a hand on the inside of the turn for balance. It’s legal to place a hand down on the ice inside the course pylons while turning. It’s also legal to skate outside your imaginary “lane” on the straightaways, as long as you get back in position at the start of the next turn. There, you’re supposed to maintain your lane and not cut people off.
Skaters often nudge the rubber-pylon turn markers at the corners, sending the markers scurrying across the ice, to be replaced by officials before the skaters make another lap. That’s not illegal, but crossing inside the pylons with a skate is forbidden.
Spectacular falls are part and parcel of this sport. Not surprisingly, given the close distances maintained while racing, one skater losing an edge and tumbling out of a turn can cause chaos, drawing most of the rest of the pack into the same crash.
Speedskaters who blow a turn are carried with huge amounts of force into the ice rink sideboards, creating an audible “WHUMP!” as their bodies are propelled into the foam padding.
Once down, a skater can get up and resume racing, but by then, it’s usually too late. Normally, only in long races such as relays is it possible to recover from a fall to finish in medal position.
Because of the speed, centrifugal force, and ultrasharp steel skate blades, slashing injuries also are common. Most veteran speedskaters bear a number of scars; a few times cuts during races have caused serious injury, not to mention a fair amount of blood pooling up on the ice.
Skaters also have received serious spinal injuries from crashing into the boards. At least one has been permanently paralyzed.
All of this is simply considered part of the allure—and challenge—of the sport to competitors.
One of the most exciting races to watch—and one of the greatest spectacles in all of Winter Olympic sport—is the short-track team relay: 5,000 meters for men, 3,000 meters for women. At first glance, it’s complete chaos: Four (and occasionally five) teams of four skaters each circle the ice, with only one designated skater from each team actually “racing” at a time. That person hands off the racing duties by skating up behind the succeeding skater, who will have mirrored the first skater’s progress along the course infield for about one lap. The new skater then is literally shoved forward, from behind, by the previous skater, giving him or her a burst of speed to start a new leg of the race.
The team’s other two skaters, meanwhile, mill about in the infield, awaiting their turn. The result is skaters moving all over the ice at the same time, with only four moving at top speed at any given moment. Spectators who take their eye off the leader at any point often lose track of who’s ahead of the pack, as skaters tend to spread out and even lap some other teams during the long race (45 laps, in the case of the men’s contest).
This is another one of those Olympic sports best watched live: A TV view gives you no real appreciation of all the activity spread across the ice rink at any given time.
Training and Equipment
Short-track racers appear suited up for battle: They wear skintight stretch suits, helmets, goggles, gloves, and skates with extremely long, razor-sharp blades canted to the left. They are intensely trained all-around athletes, employing the usual battery of aerobic and resistance training, with added emphasis on lower-body strength. To get it, short trackers will undergo training many other athletes would consider torturous, such as hopping up mile-long flights of steep steps on one leg or the other, to the point of exhaustion. Skaters also need lightning-quick reflexes to adjust to the unpredictable spills and turns of sport.