Speed Skating

Speed skating is the sport of gliding along an ice oval in an attempt to cover the most distance in the least amount of time, much like a runner in a track and field event. Speed is maximized in speed skating by adopting the crouched position, which reduces air resistance and which is characteristic of the sport. The lower the crouch, the more the leg can extend to the side during the push, lengthening the time spent applying force to the ice. The blade ranges from 38 to 45 cm in length and is about 1.25 mm thick. The high-tempered, carbon steel blade has very little rocker, or curve, compared with hockey and figure skates, and permits speed skaters to glide in long, straight lines.

Speed-skating races are held for men and women both indoors and outdoors. Outdoor races are held on open-air oval tracks 400 m in length. Two competitors race in separate lanes against the clock, changing lanes at each lap so that both skaters go the same distance. For men, there are races of 500, 1500, 5000 and 10 000 m. Women race distances of 500, 1000, 1500 and 3000 m. A fifth event is added for the Olympics: 1000 m for men and 5000 m for women. This is commonly regarded as the European style of speed skating; in North America, mass start races, where more than 2 compete, and indoor racing have always been popular. Indoor skating is practised on shorter rinks (111 m) that are sheltered from the weather, and has slightly different rules: departures are made in groups, distances are shorter, and, as there are no defined lanes, skaters come into contact with one another. Short-track speed skating first became an Olympic demonstration event in 1988.

Origins

The origins of ice skating as a recreational sport can be traced back more than 1000 years, when skating was prevalent in northern countries, including Holland, Finland and the countries of Scandinavia. Ice skating was referred to in literature as early as the 12th century. In its early period, skating was a means of transportation, but since then it has become almost exclusively a recreational activity.

The earliest skates consisted of bone blades laced to footwear. By the 14th century, wooden skates with flat iron bottom runners had become common on the canals of Holland. Skaters used poles to propel themselves over the ice. About 1500, the Dutch added a double-edged blade, making the poles unnecessary. During the 17th and 18th centuries, as the design of the skate improved, ice skating became more popular. In 1642 the Skating Club of Edinburgh was founded, giving rise to the subsequent establishment of other clubs.

The first recorded speed skating race did not take place until much later, on 4 Feb 1763 on a 24 km course on the Fens in eastern England. By 1850 skates began to be made of steel, and were longer, lighter and sharper, allowing skaters to reach speeds exponentially greater than they first enjoyed.

The first world championship competition was organized by the Dutch in 1889. Four distances were introduced, the 500 m, the 1500 m, and the considerably longer distances of 5000 m and 10 000 m. An international body to administer the sport became necessary, and in 1892 the International Skating Union (ISU) was formed in the Netherlands to preside over international competition.

Early immigrants arriving from Europe introduced skating as a recreational sport in Canada, as attested to by travel journals and diaries. Ice skating became so popular that on 24 Dec 1748, Intendant Bigot issued an ordinance forbidding skating on the streets of Québec. The exact origins of speed skating in Canada are unknown, but the first formal race is believed to have taken place in 1854 when three British army officers raced down the St Lawrence River from Montréal to Québec City. Speed skating was well established by 1887 when the Amateur Skating Association of Canada (the country's first sports association) was formed to deal with the growing interest in competition. In 1894 it joined the ISU as the first non-European member of the union. It underwent changes in the century that followed, becoming the Canadian Amateur Speed Skating Association in 1960 and Speed Skating Canada in 2000.

In those formative years, speed skating and FIGURE SKATING were both under the auspices of one organization, with the concerns of the speed skaters predominating. Figure skaters did not form their own association until 1939.

Competition

Short track and long track are the 2 types of speed skating competition. Short track, which originated in North America in 1905, begins as a mass start and has been likened to roller derby on skates. The first short track competition took place in the US in 1905, and by the 1920s it was a regularly featured event at Madison Square Gardens in New York. International competition soon followed, and by mid-century, Britain, France, Japan and Belgium began to compete successfully. Yet short track was a late entry into the Olympic repertoire, not held as an official event until Albertville in 1992. Long track speed skating developed around the same time as short track, with the first Olympic competition being held as a demonstration event in 1932. European skaters dominated international long track skating until mid-century, when skaters from the US, and later Asia, began to feature prominently.

Canada, however, has also produced many outstanding speed skaters. In 1897 Jack McCulloch of Winnipeg won the ISU world championships held in Montréal. Fred Robson, Gladys Robinson and Lela BROOKS, all of Toronto, were prominent in North American skating competitions and set a number of world records in the first 3 decades of the 20th century. Another prominent skater of that time was Charles I. GORMAN of Saint John. Jean WILSON of Toronto won gold and silver medals at the 1932 Olympics, where women's speed skating was a demonstration event.

From then until the 1970s, Canada's main speed skating achievement was Gordon Audley's bronze medal in the 500 m event at the 1952 Olympics. Twenty-four years later, Cathy Priestner won a silver medal in Innsbruck, Austria. In 1973 Sylvia BURKA became the unofficial world junior women's champion, and she won the women's world championship in 1976. The following year she won the world sprint championship. For men, Gaétan BOUCHER of Québec was second only to Eric Heiden in world competition in 1980, and set a world record for the 1000 m event. In the 1984 Olympics at Sarajevo, Boucher stimulated interest in speed skating with 2 gold medals and one bronze. In the same year he won the world sprint championships.

Boucher led the Olympic team again in 1988, but he was past his glory and the team was unable to win a medal. Part of the reason for this was the development of short-track racing, particularly in Québec, where Canada's long tradition of speed skating is strongest. Québec skaters dominated the 1988 Olympic short-track demonstration events. The men captured bronze in the 5000 m relay and the women won 4 medals.

Sylvie DAIGLE won gold in the 1500 m event and silvers in the 1000 m and 3000 m. She also led the 3000 m relay team to the bronze medal. Daigle and long-time teammate Nathalie LAMBERT exchanged the world championships in the intervening years before short-track racing became a full medal sport at the 1992 Games. Daigle suffered a fall in the 500 m but returned to lead the 3000 m relay team, which included Lambert, to the gold medal. Frédéric Blackburn, also of Québec, won silver in the men's 1000 m and was a member of the 5000 m relay team that also won silver.

Canadian success in short-track speed skating continued through the 1990s. At the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Nathalie Lambert added to her medal collection with a silver in the 1000 m event and was also a member of the women's silver-medal-winning team in the 3000 m relay. Marc GAGNON won bronze in the men's 1000 m. In Nagano in 1998 the team was even stronger: gold medals were won by Annie PERREAULT in the 500 m and by the men's relay team (Eric Bedard, Derrick Campbell, François Drolet and Marc Gagnon) in the 5000 m relay. Canada has also seen its long-track speed skaters improve considerably at the world and Olympic levels, something that can be attributed to the effective use of one of the legacies of the XV Olympic Winter Games in Calgary: the Olympic Speed Skating Oval. In 1994 Susan Auch was a silver medallist in the women's 500 m event, a feat she duplicated in 1998. The star of the ice was Catriona LEMAY DOAN, who won gold in the 500 m and bronze in the 1000 m. Jeremy WOTHERSPOON was a silver medallist in the men's 500 m, with Kevin Overland winning bronze.

The 1998-99 season was very successful, as the athletes continued to do well on the international scene. Wotherspoon was again on the podium, winning 2 World Cup titles in the 500 m and 1000 m races, and later adding a world championship title at the world sprint championships. Mike Ireland won a bronze medal in the 500 m at a World Cup that season, and Doan earned a second-place finish at the world sprint championships. She also finished the season in the top 3 in world standings for both the 500 and 1000 m races. Leading into the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Games, Canadian skaters were well situated to win medals as Doan, Wothersoon and Ireland had consistently earned top-3 finishes in their specialty races during the 2000-01 season.

The Golden Years

In 2002 Canadian speed skaters had their most successful Games to that point when they won a total of 8 Olympic medals. In the men's events, short-track skater Marc Gagnon won gold in the 500 m, gold in the 5000 m relay with teammates Jonathan Guilmette, François-Louis Tremblay and Mathieu Turcotte, and bronze in the 1500 m. As a result of these wins, Gagnon became the most decorated Canadian Winter Olympian of all time. Jonathan Guilmette won silver in the 500 m and Mathieu Turcotte won bronze in the 1000 m. An unfortunate fall in the first round of the 500 m left the favourite, long-track skater Jeremy Wotherspoon, out of medal contention. He was unable to achieve higher than 13th place in the 1000 m held only days later. The women long-track skaters added to the medal count with Catriona LeMay Doan's gold in the 500 m, Cindy KLASSEN's bronze in the 3000 m and Clara HUGHES's bronze in the 5000 m. In short-track skating, the relay team of Isabelle Charest, Marie-Eve Drolet, Amélie Goulet-Nadon and Alanna Kraus won bronze in the 3000 m relay. Hughes had the honour of being the first Canadian athlete to win a medal at both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games. In 1996 at Atlanta, Hughes won 2 bronze medals for cycling.

The international success of Canada's speed skaters continued in the years leading up to and including the 2006 Olympic Games. In long track skating Wotherspoon won World Cup gold medals in the 500 m event in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Klassen had continued success with World Cup victories in the 1500 m (2003, 2005 and 2006) and in the 3000 m (2006).

The 2006 Olympics were yet again successful for Canada, whose speed skating program continued to develop some of the world's best skaters. In all, Canada took home 8 medals in the long track (2 gold, 4 silver and 2 bronze) and 4 in short track (3 silver and 1 bronze). Team pursuit events were included for the first time in 2006, with both Canada's men's and women's teams winning silver. The team medal would be the only one for Canada's men, but Canadian women enjoyed success in both long and short track. Clara Hughes won a gold medal in the 5000 m event and Kristina Groves won silver in the 1000 m. Cindy Klassen was a favourite to win at least 3 Olympic medals for Canada. She won bronze in the 3000 m, followed by silver in the 1000 m and silver in the team pursuit. She then won gold in her signature race, the 1500 m, and finished the Games with a bronze medal in the 5000 m. In addition to winning the most medals at an Olympic competition (6), Klassen joined speed skater Marc Gagnon as the most decorated Winter Olympian in Canadian history. In short track, the Canadian men won silver in the 5000 m relay and François-Louis Tremblay won silver in the 500 m. The women's team also won the 5000 m relay, and Anouk Leblanc-Boucher won bronze in the 500 m.

Several Canadian skaters were once again slated to finish on the podium at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. Internationally, Canada's skaters had been doing well, and in 2009 short track skater Charles Hamelin set a world record in the 1000 m. However, at Vancouver slow starts in preliminary rounds did not allow many medal contenders to advance and, for those that did, dominant countries like Korea often prevailed. In short track skating brothers Charles and François Hamelin advanced to the final round but placed fourth and fifth. Still, there were several successes. Marianne St Gelais won silver in her event, the 500 m short track race. Long track skaters had a successful start when Kristina Groves won bronze in the 3000 m, later adding a silver medal in the 1500 m. These successes were followed by the highlight of Canada's speed skating achievements at the 2010 Games, Christine NESBITT'S gold medal win in the 1000 m.