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WORLD SPORT

Speed Skating

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Speed skating was on the program of the Chamonix Olympics in 1924.

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Speed Skating
Short Track Speed Skating
Winter Olympics
Torino

TORINO, Italy (CNN) -- Speed skating evolved in The Netherlands as far back as the 13th century, with skaters streaming across frozen canals to relay messages between cities. Races began in The Netherlands in the late 17th century, but the first international competition was not held until 1863, in Norway.

Short track speed skating started to establish itself near the turn of the 20th century, as long-track skaters used smaller, indoor rinks to practise sprinting and turning techniques year-round. Initially, skaters would compete in either discipline, but racers were forced to specialize as short track events became full-fledged Olympic sports.

How it is done

Speed skaters race in pairs counter-clockwise around a 400-meter oval rink, with the lowest time winning. Athletes compete in sprint events of 500 meters and 1,000 meters for men and women or in distance races of 1,500 meters (men and women), 3,000 meters (women only), 5,000 meters (men and women) and 10,000 meters (men only). Two races are held in the 500-meter event, with the lowest aggregate winning. There are also team pursuit events.

In short track speed skating, athletes race around a 111-meter oval in the men's and women's competitions over 500 meters, 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters. There is a 3,000 meter relay for women and a 5,000 meter relay for men. In contrast to the long track discipline, skaters in the short track events compete against each other. The first two skaters to finish each race advance to the next stage -- their times are not important.

What makes it hard

In both disciplines, skaters must burst along the ice from the start in a running motion to build speed as quickly as possible. Racers reach speeds of up to 60 kilometers per hour in the long track events. Tactics are important in these races, as competitors must conserve energy and judge their speed against times that are called out at various intervals.

With times recorded to the hundredths of a second, technique is also crucial. A racer must tuck one arm behind his or her back to build or maintain speed on the straight while skating in a fast, gliding motion, before switching to small, rapid crossover steps with the body leaning in on the corners and one arm pumping laterally, to prevent flying off the track.

Tactics are also vital in the short track events, in which competitors are pitched against each other in groups ranging from four to six. The races are fast and furious -- top speeds reach 50 kilometers per hour -- and skaters scrambling for advantage regularly come to grief, often taking their rivals to ground with them.

With no time pressures to consider, athletes sometimes opt to keep a safe distance from the main pack in case of a crash, hoping to swoop to victory in their wake. But while short track events can occasionally have more than a hint of luck on display, strong technique, astute tactics and the ability to keep one's head usually carry the day.

Decoding the Jargon

You may hear some unfamiliar terms in the expert commentary at the speed skating during the Games. Here is what some of them mean:

Markers: Plastic caps on the track indicate the lanes. They are not attached to the ice and may be moved but athletes must not cut inside them. Shifting the track After each race, the markers on the curves are moved and a thin layer of water is spread across the ice to smooth out grooves.

Touch or push: In relay events, racers push their team-mates on changeovers to help them gain momentum. Changeovers can take place anywhere, although most athletes choose to use the exit of corners to allow the new skater to build speed along the straight. The number of laps completed by each relay skater is optional.

G-force: On corners, skaters are pushed outwards at a force of 60kg in the inner lane and 52kg in the outer lane. To counteract this, skaters lean at an angle of 45 degrees in the inner lane and 49 degrees in the outer lane, putting a gravitational force on their legs of 90kg (inner lane) and 76.5kg (outer lane). Skaters change lanes throughout the race to ensure fairness.

Clap: The name given to the skates used, which detach at the heel when skaters use the running motion to build speed at the start of a race. The nickname is derived from the noise made when the boot reconnects with the skate.

Which means you can sound like an expert by saying: "They call that speed skating? I've seen a zamboni go faster than that!"

Did you know?

European skaters boycotted the long track events at the 1932 Lake Placid Games, when the "pack" start favored in North America was allowed. The mass start was not seen again until short track events were featured as an exhibition sport in Calgary in 1988.

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