Yo, what up?
It’s like I always say – anything can happen. The night’s racing delivered an edge-of-your-seat battle right down to the wire, with the final medal positions uncertain until the final pair had crossed the line. On paper, the result is not so surprising, but that betrays just how uncertain and close the races really were. Olga Graf’s gutsy surprise performance setting the stage for the more well-known skaters to match her time. First Pechstein, after starting well, just flagged at the end. Then Sablikova kept her cool despite being paired with a much faster-opening Polish skater, but was passed in the next pair by Wüst who started on an ambitious schedule, but managed to hold the ever-narrowing gap all the way to the finish. For the briefest of moments, junior world record holder in this distance, Antoinette de Jong looked like she might threaten the podium, but alas it was not to be. Wüst followed by Sablikova, then Graf, who earns Russia’s first speed skating medal of the games, and first medal of the whole games.
On Monday the first Australian male skater since Danny Kah in 1994 will step out onto the ice. Curiously enough, his name is Daniel (pictured), and he will be competing in the 500m and 1000m at these games. The favourite for the win must be Mo Tae Bum from Korea who won it last time and is also the top-ranked skater in world cup standings. Nipping away at his heels however will be dutchman Michel Mulder (pronounced ME-shell) who recently won the world sprint championships (which is an overall result of two 500m races and two 1000m races). Michel also recently broke the track record at Thialf (the arena in Heerenveen, where dutch olympic trials were held) right after his identical twin brother Ronald (also racing) broke it. The original record, set at the 2012 world single distances belonged to Michel, who on that occasion narrowly lost to Mo. Others to watch include the silver and bronze medallists from Vancouver, Joji Kato and Keiichiro Nagashima, both from Japan.
Out of all the events, the men’s 500m is probably the most difficult to predict. Even after the first race (the skaters race twice, and the sum of the two times is used to determine the skater’s rank), it is difficult to know who will win. Pretty much everybody in the top half of the order is capable of winning the gold medal since the competition is so close and even the slightest slip-up can cost a skater valuable time. In Vancouver, Finnish skater Mika Poutala skated the fastest time in the first race (and, incidentally, THE fastest time of the whole competition) but managed to finish outside the medals after the second run. The field is so competitive, that I would not be surprised if the first 20 times are separated by less than half a second.
From the point of view of physical exertion, the 500m is easy to understand. A skater will typically skate at 100% the entire way, holding absolutely nothing back. In the past two games, the 500m was won by the skater who was able to skate the distance in under 35 seconds in both races (and at the past two games only one skater managed to do it). This time however, I’m predicting that as many as five skaters will be able to hit that level of consistency and the times could go as low as 34.6 seconds, despite the slightly slow ice (the ice is not at altitude).
The 500m is raced twice because, since it is so short, the experience of skating the race while starting in the outer lane is significantly different to the experience of starting in the inner lane. In the longer distances, these differences even themselves out over the laps. If you begin in the outer lane for example, assuming that you are evenly paired (and that is a reasonable assumption at the olympics) you have to build speed around a wider corner at an early part of your race, but then get to skate behind the person you are paired with down the back straight (this aerodynamic advantage can be worth as much as 0.3 of a second), but then are faced with taking an inner-lane corner towards the end of your race when you are at or near top speed, which for these guys is pretty scary. If you start on the inner lane, you get to build up speed around an inner-corner (which is a little easier) but don’t get to skate behind anyone in the back straight, although you also get to navigate a gentler outer corner in the latter part of your race. Until the most recent world record, world records were set when a skater started in the outer lane and was slightly faster than the skater they were paired with, allowing them to stay very close in the slipstream behind the other skater and thus maximising their aerodynamic advantage. Jeremy Wotherspoon’s (who was not able to qualify for these games) current world record of 34.03 however, was set by starting in the inner lane, and then finishing in the outer lane. Watch it below, it’s beautiful.
As for technical points, be sure to watch everyone’s starts. It should come as no surprise that getting off to a good start is particularly crucial in a 500m race. Starts are a fairly standard thing but with a few notable variations. Yuya Oikawa has a unique starting position where he faces sideways and holds his hips very low. The American, Finnish, and some Canadian and Dutch skaters have also adopted the down start, which takes its inspiration from track running. Joey Cheek, olympic champion from Torino 2006 started with a down start. The opening hundred should be 9.6 seconds or less to be competitive and the lap should be somewhere between 25 and 25.5 seconds (9.6 + 25.0 = 34.6). A skater doesn’t usually reach top speed until the middle or end of the back straight, and that top speed is close to 60km/h. There’s a huge variation in technical approach to skating 500m. In 1998, the gold was won by Hiroyasu Shimizu and the silver by a young Jeremy Wotherspoon, Shimizu took blindingly fast steps, especially when he was getting off the start line and relied on high cadence and light weight in a small frame to get his speed – he was 5’3 or 160cm tall. Wotherspoon on the other hand took larger more powerful, but slower steps to generate his speed. For modern examples of this, watch Joji Kato and Artur Was from Poland, whose style is very similar to Jeremy’s (Jer coached Artur for a number of years). You can observe the difference in styles here:
Other than that, it’s all about how low you can go while still being able to skate, and training to be as explosive as humanly possible.
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