January 31, 2006
Short thrills 'n' ice spills
GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

If you ever wanted to see roller derby on ice, then short track speed skating is for you.

The 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics saw numerous spills from collisions as athletes tried to squeeze by opponents on the hairpin turns of the small oval ice surface that serves as the short track speed skating venue.

Short track speed skating was first included in the official program at the XVI Olympic Winter Games in Albertville in 1992. Skaters can reach speeds up to 40 km/h.

At the Olympic Games, short track speed skating consists of eight events. Men and women compete in 500m, 1000m, and 1500m. There is a 5000m relay for men, and a 3000m relay for women.

Training for Olympic trials and international or national events isn't easy. Debby Fisher of Calgary, the Canadian team's development specialist, has 30 years of experience.

"Training in short track speed skating is organized for a 10-month cycle and finishes in the latter part of March," she pointed out.

Fisher, who hails from New Brunswick, graduated from the University of New Brunswick and started a speed skating club 30 years ago in Fredericton. She said coaching talented speedskaters is a special pleasure.

"The competitors use the summer mostly for cycling, weight exercises, running programs, in line skating and, generally, putting in an effort to develop their energy system. In the summer we also start our skating workouts," she said.

The coaching discipline is strict. The athletes work about 90 minutes on the various exercises, then skate for another 90 minutes, with a half hour for a warm-up and another half hour for tapering off. Some days the aspiring Olympians have two sessions a day.

One of the key elements to be trained along with the leg muscles, is the back/stomach muscle combination necessary to keep the low forward position required to skate fast.

Prior to the arrival of short track at the Olympics, it was common for skaters to compete in short and long track events.

Short track ovals were covered and offered a place for skaters to train all year.

Many long-track racers would practice sprinting and turning techniques around the small oval. Some even competed in short track competitions.

With the development of new indoor long-track facilities, cross-sport training is not as popular anymore.

Also, now that short track has become established as an Olympic sport, racers have been forced to specialize to succeed.

THE RULES

Short-track speed skating is an elimination event in which athletes race in packs and try to outskate and outwit fellow competitors. Skaters compete not against the clock but against each other and strategy is more important than speed. The field is narrowed to a handful of finalists and the first one to cross the finish line in the final wins. Time is secondary. In fact, Olympic and world records have been set in non-medal heats.

Individual competitions begin with 32 athletes. Individual heats feature four skaters at a time in a mass start. Athletes skate counter-clockwise and the first two across the finish line advance to the next round. Sometimes more than two advance, depending on the number of heats and the nature of any disqualifications.

The men's and women's relays take place over two days and consist of a semifinal and final. The eight teams qualifying are divided into two heats of four. The top two teams in each semifinal advance to the final.

Skaters do not qualify for the Olympics through their own national championships alone. The number of skaters allowed to compete in total in the short-track events is limited to 55 men and women. The countries qualify and allocate skaters depending on how well they do at qualifying events.

For Turin, the qualifiers were World Cups in Barrio, Italy and The Hague, Netherlands, respectively. Each skater received a ranking in each distance.

DID YOU KNOW?

Although the sport originated in North America in 1905, it wasn't recognized by the ISU until 1967.