Yesterday’s women’s 3000m was no surprise at all. Sablikova won the Czech Republic’s first gold medal of the games and made it look easy. Stephanie Beckert of Germany finished in her trademark way, putting the pedal down in the last 100m of the race to pass eventual bronze medalist Kristina Groves of Canada. I had picked Germany’s Daniela Anschutz Thoms over Groves by a whisker, but the home crowd clearly helped… as did being in a close pairing with Beckert. In the end, the margin between 3rd and 4th was a mere 3 hundredths of a second – about 30cm at those speeds, which is less than the length of a blade.
If the ladies’ 3000m was one of the more predictable events of the speed skating, then the men’s is pretty much the opposite. Six different skaters have won world cup events in the past season and it seems almost impossible to really pick a favorite. Statistically, Lee Kyou-Hyuk of Korea should win, having won the most world cup 500m races. Team mate Lee Kang-Seok is not too shabby either, being a former world record holder in the event. Joji Kato of Japan, having been the favorite at previous Olympic games’ can not be ruled out either, as he is also a former world record holder (and his junior world record still stands), although on current form, the best skater in a very strong Japanese team at the moment is Yuya Oikawa, who broke the Japanese national record (previously held by Kato) only last December. He is also currently regarded as the fastest man over the first 100m, despite his unorthodox starting position, and on low ice, where top speeds are more limited, that can make a big difference to the overall result.
Among the European skaters, flying Finn Mika Poutala has found form this season and the flamboyant rapper (yes, he raps) is definitely in with a chance. The Dutch, while not being traditionally strong in the sprints have two world cup podium finishers – Jan Smeekens and Ronald Mulder – Mulder breaking Smeekens’ national record in Calgary earlier this season.
Crossing the pond to North America, team USA’s Tucker Fredericks is a strong contender. To his advantage, he is one of most technically sound skaters competing and the difficulties of the ice conditions exacerbate any flaws in one’s skating technique. The highest ranked Canadian is Jamie Gregg, whose sister Jessica Gregg is also competing in short track (his mother was an Olympic speed skater for Canada and his father played for the Edmonton Oilers and has 5 Stanley Cups to his name). However, the Canadian to watch for is current world record holder Jeremy Wotherspoon.
Silver medalist in Nagano in 1998, this will be Jer’s 4th and likely last Olympics. He has won more world cup races than anyone in the history of the world cups and has at various times held the world record in the 500m and the 1000m. A bad injury in the first world cup of the 2008-2009 season put him out of action for the year, and he is still very much on the comeback trail. He has recently hit form, winning the 500m and 1000m at Canadian trials. I was fortunate enough to see him race Canada Cup #1 earlier in January (where he stood up on the last lap of his 1000m because of interference in the crossover, yet still recorded a 1:08.08!!!), and on the strength of that, I am picking him for the win today. He also has the benefit of being in the second pair after the ice resurfacing.
Truly though, it is so close that anything could happen. The tiniest slip or mis-step can cost you a few places in the 500m and with the ice conditions sub-optimal, I would not be surprised if we see a skater go down. The 500m is raced twice, to even out the advantage/disadvantage of skating in either the outer or the inner lane, and the aggregate of the times is used to determine the winner. The two races are less than two hours apart, so the ability of skaters to recover between them will be critical. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone I haven’t mentioned wins.