Oakley sunglasses – a nutritious diet loved by speed skaters the world over.
Could anyone have possibly predicted the result? Well… no. Not at all. The first half of the starting order brought no surprises, with veterans Mark Tuitert from the Netherlands (defending Olympic champion in the 1500m) taking the lead with a respectable 1:09.29, which would ordinarily be an outside chance for a medal. But this is the Olympics, where anything can happen, and it was the German Sam Schwarz who raised the bar to 1:08.89 – a new track record. In the very next pair Stefan Groothuis of the Netherlands lowered the track record once again, from the outer lane. Denny Morrison in the next pair almost, but didn’t quite better his time, slotting into second place, with Michel Mulder from the same pair slotting into third. Then the unexpected happened – pair after pair of skaters failed to hit the mark. Some blew up, and some simply did not go as fast as they probably had planned to. Denis Kuzin only managed 7th, and defending olympic champion Shani Davis 8th, Mo Tae Bum silver medalist from last year’s world championships finishing well down the order to finish 12th. Leaving Stefan Groothuis, who came 4th in Vancouver, with the gold medal, Denny Morrison sandwiched between two dutchies with the silver, and Michel Mulder collects his second medal of this Olympics with a bronze. A little bit unlucky for Nico Ihle and Sam Schwartz from Germany to miss out on the medals, since they both broke the old track record. So the Dutch in dominating style pick up another two medals, and Denny Morrison picks up the FIRST non-Dutch medal in the men’s competition (the Dutch have 8 out of 9 medals at this stage).
The ladies 1000m at this games is as wide open and competitive a competition as I can remember in recent years. At the last games, Canadian Christine Nesbitt came into Vancouver the heavy favourite, having won all the 1000m races in the season leading up to the big dance. She prevailed by the slim margin of 2-hundredths of a second (less than a blade length) to take the gold in front of Annette Gerritsen from the Netherlands. She then went on to break the longstanding world record in the 1000 (held previously by another Canadian – Cindy Klassen) in the next season at world sprint championships. However, her dominance has waned somewhat. She failed to finish within the medals at last year’s world single distance championships, and her world record was bettered twice in the same day at one of the qualifying events for the games, just last November. First Heather Richardson, from the US, broke it by a few hundredths, then teammate Brittany Bowe broke it again by a few more hundredths. (It is worth noting the both Bowe and Richardson are former inline speed skaters who enjoyed considerable success at world championships, but probably switched to ice out of frustration that inline skating kept being passed over for inclusion in the summer games.)
You would think that would give us our three medal contenders, and we’d be done with the predicting for the day, but speed skating is a little more complicated than that. World records are ordinarily set at important competitions (world sprint championships and olympic qualifying events would fall into that category), and at high altitude venues such as Calgary and Salt Lake City. While the Olympics certainly qualifies as an important competition, Sochi is NOT a high altitude venue, and the humidity that comes from being situated right next to the sea (a problem that was also encountered in Vancouver), means that the ice is significantly slower. If the previous races are any indication, skaters who are used to training at altitude (the Canadians and the Americans, mostly) have struggled on the slower ice, even in events such as the 500m where you don’t have to hold back to avoid blowing up before the end of the race. This would go some of the way to explaining why the Dutch have been performing so well (apart from the fact that speed skating is a national sport), since almost all of Holland exists at or below sea-level.
Last year’s world single distance championships (held here, in Sochi) might give us some indication. Bowe, Nesbitt, and Richardson finished 3rd, 4th, and 6th respectively. Karolina Erbanova from the Czech Republic was 5th, Ireen Wüst was 2nd, and Olga Fatkulina (pictured) is the current world champion in this distance. For this reason, and based on her performance yesterday to win the silver medal in the 500m, I’m going to put her down for the win. In second, I’m tipping Brittany because coming from inline skating where she was multiple world champion, and now being world record holder in the distance, if there was anyone who could overcome the struggle of having to deal with slower ice, it would be her. I’d like to put Nesbitt down for the bronze, but my head tells me that it will be Ireen Wüst who is obviously skating well after her gold medal in the 3000m. In this distance, to win it is a combination of how high a speed you can hit in your first lap, combined with how much speed you can keep while your legs are ready to give out from under you, and Wüst with her proven ability over the longer distance, is more likely to have those legs in the second lap, when the slower ice will punish you more.
Of course, this isn’t just a five-horse race (when I say ‘horse’, I’m not at all referring to how the skaters look, it is merely a sporting reference to horse racing, in fact many of the skaters competing in the 1000 look… lovely), there are several dark horses (again, not a reference to appearance, or for that matter, race) who could potentially stage an upset. Dutch skaters Marrit Leenstra, and Margot Boer (also high from a recent medal-winning performance) are threatening, especially considering the positive vibes which must be going through the Dutch section of the village right now. Also don’t forget the home crowd – Russians Katya Shikhova and Yekaterina Lobysheva could also surf in on a wave of crowd euphoria to snatch a medal from the favourites.
Technically-speaking, the Russians are some of the nicest skaters. This is due to the rather interesting “Russian System” whereby the very best and most technical coaches are given the responsibility of the youngest athletes. As athletes progress up the ranks into regional, then national, then international competition the demands and requirements placed on the coaches are gradually relaxed. So a ‘head’ Russian national coach will probably still know a fair amount about skating, but won’t be the expert coach that the guy in charge of the junior club development squad will. In many ways this makes sense, because the good training habits and technical things are most easily learned at a young age. Skaters at that stage in their development are also not as independent as older skaters are, meaning that not only are the coaches much more influential on a skater’s progress, but they are also much more necessary for the psychological development of the athlete. This has the effect of making almost all Russian speed skaters who make it to international competition very technically proficient. I am not privy to the finer details of Russian training programs at the elite level, but suffice to say that it is generally easier to take an athlete with well-developed technique and make them physically stronger, than to take a physically strong athlete, and teach them speed skating technique, especially if they’re older (which basically describes my own journey into ice skating, and probably explains my slow and painful progress).
As an interesting contrast, the American system is very different. Skaters sort of get to do their own thing. Coaches certainly exist, but the emphasis is much more exclusively on physical conditioning, and technique seems more the responsibility of the athlete. Of course, to get into the program you need to be quite a good skater to begin with, so perhaps the thinking is that they would save a bit of time and effort by allowing a bit of Darwinian natural selection to take place with regard to skaters developing their own technique. This is not entirely unsound thinking as a skater who can develop their own technique will generally be very technically-minded and able to continue developing that technique ‘by feel’ on their own with little assistance, but it does strike me as a very inefficient way of dealing with the challenge of developing sound technique in the elite skaters. It also makes it difficult for skaters who transition from other sports, such as the inline skaters. I’ve written extensively on the differences between ice and inline skating here, and where those differences come from, and I’ll likely write a lot more about it. Transitioning from ice to inline is not as easy as it probably looks, even though the sports seem very similar, and the lack of emphasis on technique has probably made the struggle of transitioning athletes harder than it needed to be. Almost all of the ice skaters from the US who have come from inline skating are former world champions in inline (Derek Parra had medals from every distance, and Chad Hedrik had collected a staggering 50 world titles during his inline career). Bowe and Richardson are both former world title holders, and many in the US short track team also have a sizeable collection of world championship jerseys from inline skating.
See if you can spot the differences between skating technique of the Russians and the Americans.
Don’t forget to click on the sochi2104 tag below to read other articles about these olympics. Also don’t forget about the ‘Sochi Specials’ of which there are now two – concerning the speed suits that the skaters wear, and the difference between long track and short track.