Great Britain have not had a long track speed skater qualify for an Olympics in 30 years - and then three come along at once.
It is a sport completely dominated by the Netherlands and they have the two biggest stars too, in Ireen Wust and Sven Kramer, already legends in their field.
Speed skating made its Olympic debut in 1924, with women joining the competitive field in 1960. Competing on a 400m track, new viewers may find it very similar to track cycling, especially the team pursuit - which is virtually identical. Generally, though, the individual events are all about setting the fastest time - even though skaters will essentially ‘race’ against each other.
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In 2018 the mass start was introduced to the programme, making it a bit more similar to short track speed skating, which was formed out of long track in North America because of a desire for such events. In such races, it can be a bit more chaotic - and unpredictable.
Craig McNicoll was the last British long track speed skater to compete at a Games in 1992, but in Beijing there will be two Team GB speed skaters: Cornelius Kersten, a Dutch-born athlete with a British mother, who set a new national record time in the 1000m of a World Cup event earlier this season, and his partner, Ellia Smeding.
It is Kersten who can perhaps sum up his sport best: “It’s an everlasting quest, and a very unnatural sport. Humans have evolved to stand up straight and walk forward, and in speed skating, you’re springing down and pushing to the side - when you hit it, it’s a beautiful feeling.”
Team GB speed skating participants and prospects
Cornelius Kersten and Ellia Smeding
Image credit: Getty Images
Team GB's long wait for athletes to represent them in long track speed skating at the Olympics is over. Cornelius Kersten has become the first British representative to make it to a Winter Games in 30 years, while his partner, Ellia Smeding, has ended a 42-year wait.
Kersten arrives in Beijing in the form of his life, too - setting both 1000m and 1500m national records in 2021.
All of this while running his coffee business with Smeding - who was born and bred in the UK, before she moved to the Netherlands in her younger years and caught the national speed skating bug. Just like her boyfriend, she also set new national records in the 1000m and 1500m last year, and continues to get better and better.
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Away from the British-centric view - it is all about two Dutch superstars. Ireen Wust is the most decorated active Winter Olympian, with 11 medals in total, five of which are gold. She is the first athlete to win an individual title in four consecutive Games - only six have managed that at a summer Games. If she wins another in Beijing, she will make further history as the only athlete in history to win individual golds at five Games.
Sven Kramer is also a legend in the sport, with nine Olympic medals - and he is also the first man to win four straight World Allround Championships.
Speed skating events and format
There are seven disciplines each in the men’s and women’s competition - but this is a sport which does not yet include a mixed discipline in Olympic competition. In all events bar the mass start, two rivals compete at the same time - either individually or in teams - but the aim is to set the fastest time, not to beat an opponent to the finish line to ‘win’ a race. The fastest overall athlete/team wins.
In the mass start it is much different, and very much resembles a track cycling points race where most points wins.
Speed skating rules
In all events other than the mass start and the team pursuit, it is simply about setting the fastest time. To make this more of a spectacle, and to allow an element of a ‘chase’, skaters race in pairs, alternating whether they have the inside or outside lane each lap. Fastest time wins.
Mass start rules
The first element to the mass start is as it sounds - 12 skaters line up in each semi-final, with the top eight advancing to the medal race. But this is not just a sprint to the finish line - think of this a bit like a track cycling points race, if you are familiar with it.
Each race consists of 16 laps with three intermediate sprints after the fourth, eighth and 12th laps - these earn five, three and one point(s) respectively. The first three to finish the 16 laps earn 60, 40 and 20 points - the athlete with the highest amount of points wins gold.
These races are a lot more unpredictable, like most short track races. Expect a few shocks - once one athlete tumbles, other skaters usually follow…
Team pursuit rules
Again, think track cycling and you are in the right zone. Two teams of three skaters line up in a line on opposite sides in the middle of the track. Olympic competition most resembles cycling, because the team pursuit is simply against the clock in most other competitions.
At the Games, it follows a knockout format - teams are seeded on ranking and will face off against each other over eight laps for men and six for women, with the third (last) finishing skater’s time being the one that counts for the team.
Like track cycling, if one team overtakes the other before the allotted laps, they automatically win.
What’s the difference between speed skating and short track speed skating?
The simple answer is that one rink is bigger than the other. A standard ‘long’ track is 400m, the same size as a normal athletics track, which makes it quite a spectacle in a tightly packed arena. Almost all events are simply about setting the fastest time.
In short track, there is carnage. The rink is only the size of ice hockey dimensions, and it is every skater for themselves - meaning more risks are taken, more falls happen and there are more shock results.
What skates do speed skaters wear?
These are much different to your standard, annual festive trip to a pop-up rink. The boot is similar, but the blade is super long - and it also operates on a hinge. This allows greater range of movement in the ankle (anything more rigid could lead to serious injury given the angle skaters lean), as well as longer contact on the ice. The technical name for these are ‘clap skates’.
How long is the speed skating oval for the Olympics?
Picture a standard athletics track, pop it on ice, make it look shiny and surround it with a tightly packed crowd - that’s your speed skating oval, which usually measures 400m.
Why are there stripes on the inner thigh of speed skating tights in the Olympics?
If we give you one guess, we think you will get it right…
Speed skating is about going as fast as you can, meaning athletes will stay as aerodynamic as possible, making it look like they glide around the track. Over time, these patches on the inner thigh of skin suits are designed to reduce friction and chafing. We’ve all been there.
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