February 8, 2006
Clap for skaters
Speed skating went to new heights with innovative invention
GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

The origin of speed skating is still very much in dispute, depending on whether you refer to primitive activities or actual recorded competitions.

One thing is clear: speed skating as an activity first appeared in The Netherlands in the second half of the seventeenth century. The first official competitions were not held until 1863 in Oslo, Norway, although there are a few skating historians who believe the first competitions were held in England around 1763.

Whatever the origin, speed skating, also known as long track speed skating, had its first world championship in the Netherlands in 1889. Three years later, the International Skating Union was formed in Scheveningen, Netherlands to monitor and organize speed skating events.

Canada's first recorded race took place in 1854 on the St. Lawrence River between three British army officers who raced from Montreal to Quebec City. By 1887, the sport had gained sufficient popularity that the Amateur Skating Association of Canada was formed.

In 1894, the Canadian governing body became the first non-European organized to join the International Skating Union. Three years later, Montreal hosted the World Championships with Canada, Germany and Norway in attendance. Canadian Jack McCulloch of Winnipeg would win the world title on home ice.

Despite the early beginning, speed skating didn't become part of the Winter Olympics until 1924 in Chamonix, France. Shockingly, the first gold medal winner was an American, Charles Jewtraw in the 500 metres. However, the Finns dominated the sport with Clas Thunberg leading the way winning three Olympic gold medals over the 1924 and 1928 Games.

Though women raced in three events as a demonstration sport in 1932 at the Lake Placed Games, they had to wait almost 30 years to become part of the Olympics. In 1960 at the Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California, women competed in four distances. The fifth women's event, the 5000 meters, was added to the Olympic program at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

The biggest advancement in speed skating came in the mid-1980s when a team of Dutch scientists led by Gerrit Jan van Ingen Schenau at the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam developed the clap skate.

Unlike the traditional skates where the skating blade is fixed to the sole of the boot, clap skates have their blades attached by a hinge at the front of the boot.

Though clap skates were first used in the 1984-85 season, they didn't really catch on until 1996-97 when the Dutch women's team began using them and scorching the competition.

By the Nagano Olympics of 1998, usage of the clap skates was much more commonplace and world records fell everywhere.

QUALIFICATIONS

There will be 10 events in the 2006 Olympics: men and women each will compete in 500m, 1000m, 1500m and 5,000m distances with the fifth women's event being the 3,000m and the fifth men's the gruelling 10,000m.

Except for the shortest race (500m), all races are run once only. Skaters are seeded into two-person heats and race for final time. Thus, it is possible for the gold and silver medallists to come from the same heat. For the 500m event, two races are run and the total aggregate time determines the winner.

The track is a 400m oval and the athletes skate counter-clockwise around it. Each lane is between four and five metres wide and the skaters wear armbands to denote their starting lane (white - inner lane; red - outside lane). In the back straight, the skaters must cross over and switch lanes so that they both skate the same distance.

TRAINING

"Training for speed skating is tough," said Catriona LeMay Doan.

"You have to work out for about 11 months a year, six days a week with many two-a-days. You might not believe it, but we sometimes train on Christmas Day. The only month we are off is April.

"We spend a lot of time in dry land training but revert to ice workouts in late summer. We train about five hours a day, sometimes even more. But, as they say, 'no pain, no gain.'"

DID YOU KNOW?

Canada's Gaetan Boucher was the king of the track in 1984 at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia when he won two gold medals and a bronze.

OLYMPIC GOLDS

2002 MEN: 500m: Casey FitzRandolph (USA) 1,000m: Gerard van Velde (NED) 1,500m: Derek Parra (USA) 5,000m: Jochem Uytdehaage (NED) 10,000m: Jochem Uytdehaage (NED)

WOMEN 500m: Catriona LeMay Doan (CAN) 1,000m: Christine Witty (USA) 1,500m: Annie Friesinger (GER) 3,000m: Claudia Pechstein (GER) 5,000m: Claudia Pechstein (GER)