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Like NASCAR on ice: How short track speedskating differs from long track

One is about pure speed. The other is like a NASCAR race on ice. Here's what to look for in speedskating at the Winter Olympics.

Speed skating and short track speed skating are two of the three skating disciplines at the Winter Olympics. At their core, the two sports are similar, but there are variances that make them different animals.

The first big difference, as the names would imply, is the size of the racing ovals. In speed skating, the rink is 400 meters around, whereas the short track is just over 111 meters around. 

That short track seems to be just a consequence of circumstance. According to the International Olympic Committee, short track got started in North America in the early 1900s. Because of a dearth of 400-meter tracks in the area, athletes resorted to racing in ice rinks. Short track wasn’t added to the Olympic lineup until the 1992 Games in Albertville, France.

Speed skating (sometimes referred to as “long track”) has a much longer history. The first ever speed skating event is thought to have taken place in the Netherlands in 1676. Officially though, the first was in Oslo, Norway, in 1863. It was a natural inclusion for the first Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix, France, in 1924.

The two sports differ in how they are raced.

Short track

Imagine NASCAR on ice and you have short track.

Athletes race against each other, typically with four to six racers per heat. Racers advance from heat to heat until they reach the final. In addition to the individual events, there is a team relay for both the men and the women. And making its Olympics debut at the Beijing Games is the mixed team relay, with two men and two women per country. 

There is a total of nine events in Beijing.

Because a smaller oval means more turns and higher G force, short track skaters wear helmets, protective gear and fixed skates. According to the Canadian Olympic Committee, short track racers face just under three Gs when turning. Short track walls are also padded to minimize injuries in the event of a crash.

Long track

Skaters don’t wear helmets for most events but do wear full body suits. Skates are much longer for faster straightaway speed and have a hinge on the front, allowing them to detach in the back. They’re referred to as “clap skates.”

There are two marked lanes on the track. On each lap, skaters must transition from the outside lane to the inside lane, or vice-versa. This ensures skaters will complete the same distance.

The majority of long track races are against the clock, not the person the skater is on the track with. In individual events, there are usually no more than two skaters at a time (occasionally there may be four skaters, with two starting on either end of the track, to save time). The skater with the fastest time once everyone has competed wins the gold.

There is also the team pursuit, in which two teams of three skaters start at opposite ends of the track. Teammates take turns at the front of the pack. The team across the finish line first wins. There are quarterfinals, semifinals and finals.

And then there is the mass start event, in which multiple skaters are on the track at the same time competing individually. This is the one long track event where skaters will wear a helmet due to the added risk of collisions.

Long track will be the largest sport at the Beijing Games with 14 total events.

The Dutch reign supreme when it comes to speedskating. The Netherlands has won 121 speed skating medals, with 42 gold. They also boast the most decorated male and female speed skaters. Sven Kramer is second all-time with nine medals. He’ll compete in his fifth consecutive Olympics in Beijing. Ireen Wüst has 11 speed skating medals. If she wins a gold in Beijing, she’ll become the only woman to ever win a gold in five Winter Games.

Asian countries tend to dominate the short track. The Republic of Korea leads all nations with 48 medals, including 24 gold. Koreans won six out of a possible 24 medals at the 2018 PyeongChang Games.

The most-decorated U.S. winter Olympian of all-time is short track speedskater Apolo Ohno. He won eight medals, including two gold, between 2002 and 2010.

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