The Russian girls snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and will go on to the next round, to be contested tomorrow.
The preliminary stages of the team pursuit went largely as expected. The Koreans putting in a great performance in the men’s competition with a track record in the very first round, in the next round, they faced the Canadians in the semifinals – the defending olympic champions with a team that includes members from that gold medal winning team. Canada started strong and put a good gap into the Koreans, but then the Koreans brought it back to take the lead at about the halfway mark, and finished strong to beat Canada by a good margin, definitively putting to rest rumours that the Koreans are only good at the sprints. In the other semifinal, the Dutch asserted their position as the favourites by convincingly beating the Polish team who, to be fair, decided that they didn’t have a chance and conserved their strength for the bronze medal match tomorrow against the Canadians. The Dutch also regained their track record.
The ladies competition also went without too many surprises. The Russians almost faltered in front of the home crowd when faced with the Canadians, but they finished strong, and made it to the next round. Poland beat Norway, and the Dutch very easily beat the Americans in a new Olympic record time. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, one of their skaters, Jorien Ter Mors, immediately left upon finishing and rushed across town to skate in the 1000m in short track! The Korean girls, were unfortunately not able to replicate the result of the boys, and lost out to Japan.
In light of today’s results, I’m clearly going to have to change a few of my predictions. In the match between the Netherlands and Korea for the gold medal, I honestly think that the Dutch should win. The Koreans are a quality team, but for them to win the gold medal, the Dutch will have to make a mistake, either a fall or a terrible changeover. Out of the team of Blokhuijsen, Verweij, and Kramer it will have to be Kramer to watch for the error, as the other two are seasoned veterans of being able to skate well in a pack after years of inline skating. For the bronze, I’m going to have to tip Poland over Canada, since the Poles clearly conserved their energy during their semifinal, while Canada were really going for it.
On current form, the Dutch look unstoppable in the ladies too (even though they’ve never won a medal before). The Japanese put in a surprise performance but unless the Dutch make a big mistake, I can’t see them winning in the semifinal. The semifinal between Poland and Russia should be won by Russia, not only because of the crowd but because they set a faster time and despite a ragged finish, seemed to have an easier time of it. Once again, barring a major error, I think the Dutch have this, with the Russians in with the silver. For the bronze, I might just go with Japan, because the battle between Russia and Poland is going to take a greater toll since it is a much closer matchup.
The reason I’ve backtracked and changed my opinion of a possible Dutch victory is because I now believe that they are much less likely to make a mistake than I had believed previously. In previous games, they weren’t clearly much faster than other teams, so they knew they had to put in great performances in to win it. Pushing themselves like this, in an unfamiliar racing format, increases the likelihood of mistakes, and history bears this out. Now two things have changed – there are now significant team members who are very accustomed to skating in a pack (inline skaters and short track skaters) and there is an element of dominance. As I observed in the preliminary and semifinal rounds (for the men) it became clear that they had enough overhead that they could win with a sub-maximal effort, and that significantly decreases the chances of a mistake.
Things to look out for – starting technique. Not much has been written about this, but I think that teams who start in a configuration with one skater behind the other are daft. The start in long track is a very precarious time, where even if you don’t make a disastrous error, like digging your toe into the ice and ending up sliding on your knees, there are often slight slip ups and scrapes that can throw your rhythm. If someone is directly behind you, what started as a minor problem can very quickly turn into a major one. The reason skaters want to start behind each other is mostly so they can get in step as soon as possible, but I don’t believe this is necessary during the first 50m of the race. The speeds are also low enough that aerodynamics aren’t such a big factor. The best way to start is for two skaters to be on the front line, with a gap between them, and the third skater to be a few meters back, directly behind the gap. The skater on the line, nearest the inside of the track goes into first, the second skater on the line slips into second and the skater standing behind slips into third. It is also possible for the second skater on the front line to slip into third place, using the wider line of the corner to adjust the positioning.
Also look out for – pushing. Good teams help each other out. When you’re skating ‘normally’ as in, not in a pack, controlling your speed is easy, because you have wind resistance pushing you back, and yourself pushing you forwards. When you’re in a pack, if you’re behind someone you can save a lot of energy because you don’t have to fight the wind. When you go into the corners though, even though there is still no wind, you still have to accelerate to change direction, so a skater will balance those forces and keep a constant gap to the skater in front. However, coming out of the corner and into the straight, this cornering ‘resistance’ disappears and anyone who’s ever skated in a pack knows that this is when you always almost skate into the back of whoever you’re following. Some skaters will simply glide on their right foot (to unload their left, which takes more of the burden of cornering forces) and use the draft to have a little breather, and also to get in step with the skater in front. A really GOOD team pursuit team will keep skating and the skaters will push each other slightly with their hands, to help the lead skater. (Katya can be seen doing this to the lead Russian skater in the picture above)
I can hardly believe that speed skating at the olympics is almost over. I hope you’ve all enjoyed my daily updates, and of course there will be one more recap. I may write one or two more feature articles if anyone is interested (and has a topic to suggest).
Don’t forget to click on the sochi2104 tag below to read other articles about these olympics. You may also want to read the ‘Sochi Specials’ some of which have been very popular, the close finish of the mens 1500m has raised questions about the timing equipment used in speed skating, while the controversy surrounding the American’s suits might lead you to read the article where I articulate why it is NOT about the suits. Going even further, I break down and analyse the anatomy of a race, using American skating legend Shani Davis as an example. There was also a short article added today about why speed skaters don’t tear up the ice in the same way that hockey skaters do, and the recent addition giving ordinary folk an insight into a day in the life of an olympic athlete.