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Speedskating Primer: Long Track Vs. Short Track

Feb 20, 2018
Originally published on February 21, 2018 1:49 am
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Let's turn now to our team in Pyeongchang, South Korea. They have been spending time with a couple Olympic medalists in speedskating, both long and short track. Both of these formats can be pretty thrilling and also agonizing, as NPR's Melissa Block reports.


MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Long track speedskating is the classic, an Olympic sport since 1924. Short track is the younger sibling - a plucky, aggressive upstart introduced in the games in 1992. In both, the athletes skate in a deep crouch, leaning forward, torso nearly parallel to the ice. In long track, on a 400-meter oval, skaters need to maximize a huge sideways push.

JOEY CHEEK: The longer you can push, then the more speed you can generate. Every inch you sit deeper provides a little bit longer push.

BLOCK: Joey Cheek would know. He won Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals in long track, a sport powered by certain muscle groups.

CHEEK: It's quads. It's glutes. The typical speed skater body, you've got these big legs and big rears.

JOHN COYLE: The long trackers are a lot of our big guys, right? You walk in a room with them, and they're all towering over you.

BLOCK: That's John Coyle, Olympic silver medalist in short track. It's skated on a much smaller rink - 111 meters around, with tight corners. So typically, a short track skater will be smaller and lighter.

COYLE: Fairly short, low to the ground - they're kind of the praying mantises of the athletic world in terms of, you just don't really need muscular arms, so they don't bother.

BLOCK: But again, superstrong legs to withstand major G-forces as they lean low to the ice around the corners.

COYLE: It's just shy of three G's. A space shuttle or a rocket lifts off at about three, so it's essentially a space shuttle launch every 4 1/2 seconds for the duration of the race.

BLOCK: In long track, the G-forces aren't quite as strong since the curves are wider. But the speeds are higher - up to 40 miles an hour. And Joey Cheek says the sensation is amazing.

CHEEK: You hit this corner, and you're travelling at these incredible speeds, and the wind's hitting you in the face. And when it's going well, it feels like you're just flying.

BLOCK: Most long track races are time trials - just two skaters at a time racing against the clock. But short track is raced in a tight pack, nose to tail. As John Coyle explains, the skaters have to be wily as they jockey for position and maneuver to pass.

COYLE: It's very much a cat-and-mouse game of, when do I move, who else is moving, how do I move, up the outside, up the inside. How do I avoid getting disqualified falling while I make that move to the first position?

BLOCK: Common to both short and long track is pain caused by the buildup of lactic acid, reaching levels that are among the highest of any sport. John Coyle remembers it well.

COYLE: It does feel exactly like you're on fire. It's incredibly painful.

BLOCK: In long track, especially the long-distance races...

CHEEK: It's miserable. Every part of your body, from your fingernails, to the back of your spine, to your toes, hurts.

BLOCK: Which explains why, Joey Cheek jokes, he became a 500-meter sprinter instead.

CHEEK: Oh, my God, easiest thing in the world. It's 34 seconds. By time you're cooked in that race, you've only got 10 seconds left.

BLOCK: It was in the 500-meter sprint that Joey Cheek won gold in the 2006 Olympics. Here in South Korea, where he's doing commentary for NBC, he took a moment before the games when the oval was totally empty, and he walked down to the ice to the start line.

CHEEK: And everything was just perfectly still. You know, my hair stood up on end. And when I had that brief second when I looked down the line, you get teary, and you go, my gosh, once upon a time, I had a day where I was the best in the world at this.

BLOCK: The thrill that helps you forget the agony. Melissa Block, NPR News, Gangneung, South Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLEAN OF CORE'S "A SAD LOOK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.