The stock car races of the Games

Robin
Robin Short
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It's about strategy, speed, contact and crashes

It's the beauty of the Olympics. Every four years, sports that are otherwise an insignificant speck on the public's consciousness emerge as hot ticket items, cranking TV ratings and perhaps even sparking idle chatter outside their domain.

It's a Wednesday evening at the Pacific Coliseum, erstwhile home of the Vancouver Canucks, and another sellout for the Olympic Winter Games' short track speed skating event.

The United States' Katherine Reutter, Canada's Kalyna Roberge, the Czech Republic's Katerina Novotna and Korea's Park Seung-Hi (left to right) round a corner during the 500-metre quarter-final in women's short-track speedskating Wednesday at the 2010 Vanc

It's the beauty of the Olympics. Every four years, sports that are otherwise an insignificant speck on the public's consciousness emerge as hot ticket items, cranking TV ratings and perhaps even sparking idle chatter outside their domain.

It's a Wednesday evening at the Pacific Coliseum, erstwhile home of the Vancouver Canucks, and another sellout for the Olympic Winter Games' short track speed skating event.

Outside, a handful of scalpers are hocking tickets.

What in the name of Stan Smyl is going on?

While speed skating has long been an Olympic event, it's short track little brother only gained official status at the 1992 Albertville Games.

It's a peculiar event, but one not without a degree of excitement and anticipation as skaters buzz about the track in perfect formation, stride for stride, hands clasped behind their backs, fingers dabbling the ice in alliance on the corners.

"It's a mix," Kalyna Roberge told the Canadian Press, "between speed and technique. Technically, you need to be smart, you need to be strong, you need to skate good."

It's been called the roller derby of the Olympics, but don't let a skater hear you say that.

So we'll comply.

It's the stock car racing of the Games.

Perhaps it's the danger of the sport, or the anticipation of danger, that creates a buzz rippling through a crowd dotted with Japanese, Korean, Chinese, U.S. and, of course, Canadian flags.

If this is a sport of French Canadian culture within this land - nine of the 10 skaters are from Quebec, the lone exception being Edmonton's Jessica Gregg, daughter of former Oiler Randy Gregg and Olympic long track speed skater Kathy Gregg - it's roots are certainly rooted deep within Asia on the global scale.

Of the five world records in men's skating - 500 metres, 1,000, 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 metres relay - four are held by Koreans. Only Canada's Charles Hamelin of Ste-Julie, Que., prevents a clean Korean sweep.

Among the women, it's these Chinese that are dominant with four of five world records. A Korean skater has the 3,000m record.

If the long trackers are the Freightliners among speed skaters - building up speed until they're cruising at 55 or 60 kilometres per hour (perhaps faster) - the short track competitors are the darty little Ferraris, zipping in and out of traffic, jockeying for position.

Explosiveness is the sport's mantra.

Sometimes racers try to block out each other, so as a result bumping occurs, leading to wipeouts. It's part of the 'jam', as the skaters like to say. Little elbow here, little push there.

Accidents are an inherent fact of life with this game, so much so skaters' tight bodysuits are lined with Kevlar - the stuff of which bullet-proof vests constructed - to prevent skate blades, like slashing knives, from penetrating.

"In a race, you never want that to happen," said Hamelin. "Not only can you lose a race, but you could injure yourself seriously. It's really terrible when that happens, everyone is disappointed and everyone is disconcerted."

Particularly intriguing is the 5,000m relay, 16 skaters buzzing about the ice, but only four in the racing lane. Upon completion of one and half laps, a skater emerges from centre ice and is given a push on the cheeks by his/her teammate to gain speed for another lap and a half.

And so it goes.

Exciting? No question. Exhilarating? Absolutely.

But a sport that will ever be classed as mainstream? Certainly not.

Isn't that the beauty of the Olympic Games?

rshort@thetelegram.com

For 2010 Olympic TV highlights and visit, http://www.ctvolympics.ca/tv-online-listings/index.html

Organizations: Olympic Games, Vancouver Canucks, Canadian Press

Geographic location: U.S., Quebec, Edmonton Asia Ste-Julie

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