I’ve watched most of each Winter Olympics for the past 23½ years and have this year come to the near certain conclusion that, in a fallen world, Olympic short track speed skating is the closest thing we’ll ever have to a human breach of the space-time continuum. By the fourth turn, I’ve completely forgotten about Euclidean space. Speed skating isn’t confined to any dimensions, space or time. The only thing that can constrain speed skating is speed skating itself.
A glistening oval sheet of ice, on it a track, 111.12 meters in circumference, perfect in symmetry. Featured on said ice are a handful of world-class athletes wearing form hugging spandex and standing on offset metal blades.
The stands might be half-full to sold out. In Sochi, you might expect a good portion of the crowd to be earnest Russians. You’ll also find the optimistic Americans, friendly Canadians, and hopeful South Koreans. The overwhelming rest are almost certainly the zealous, orange-clad Dutch, whose recent privatization of sport has elevated the country’s already perennial success to new heights.
This is the theater of the Olympics’ most adrenaline-packed sport. It is accented by an all-too palpable sensation, the tension that each of the coming turns represents the possibility of extraordinary greatness or dream-crushing disaster. And part of it, maybe too much of it, feels left to chance.
The Olympics’ mythic weight translates perfectly into speed skating. Strength and finesse collide at exhilarating speeds, leaving little room for hesitation and even less for error. Attempts to pass must be deliberated laps in advance. Leading the pack means confronting more wind resistance. Trailing offers the benefit of drafting the leaders, but not without the risk of crashing in an attempt to gain position.
This New York Times special report calls short track “Nascar on ice.” American short track skater Eddy Alvaraz turned to music for his comparison. “Short track is like metal rock. You kind of always got to be on your toes. … It’s more intense,” he told the Los Angeles Times. I think both of those comparisons leave something to be desired. Nascar on ice? Try Formula 1 on ice-paved switchbacks. Metal rock? I prefer symphonic dubstep. The skaters fling themselves around turns with centers of gravity so low that one is forced to speculate whether the best of them, Chinese gold medalist Yang Zhou for example, can see their pores in the ice’s reflection.
The 5000-meter relay variant might be the sport’s perfected form. Here all of the sport’s drama is spread out over 3.1 miles and put into team context. For nearly seven minutes, the skaters catapult themselves around each turn and into the backsides of their waiting teammates, who they then shove forward like fanatical children on the swing set.
In last Thursday’s semifinal, the United States’ relay squad qualified for the 5000-meter relay final. But, as is sometimes the case in speed skating, the qualification wasn’t entirely decided on the ice.
With four laps remaining, Alvarez, the first male Cuban-American Winter Olympian, came out of a turn and clipped the hand of South Korea’s Ho-Suk Lee while passing. The collision sent both skaters to their knees, causing the American skaters to finish last in the semifinal, and a normally reserved Austrian commentator to exclaim “Ich haue mich weg!” (“I don’t believe it”; literally “I knock myself away!)
The Americans crossed the finish line with a time of 6:50. Olympic speed skating relies on a referee to determine fault for its collisions. Interfering with an opponent’s attempt to pass can result in disqualification. Being interfered with can keep a skater’s hopes to qualify alive.
Three minutes after finishing, they Americans were still without decision. The sport I thought to defy physics was once again enslaved to time. In a punishing and not uncommon twist of fate, the sport that rewards split-second precision left its participants frozen in uncertainty.
“It was a very stressful three minutes,” Alvarez told the Miami Herald.
Once the decision was announced, South Korean skater Da Woo Sin agreed with his team’s disqualification.
“It wasn’t the Americans’ fault,” he said. “There was a mix-up with our signals. It’s a pity.”
The South Korean disqualification earned Alvarez and the Americans a spot in Friday’s final. There they’ll compete with the Dutch, the Russians, and a host of other global challengers. The stakes will be higher. Medals will be on the line. Other than that, not much will be different from the semifinal, or any other race before that. The rink will be oval. The track will be 111.12 meters. And the Dutch will be dressed in orange. There on the pristine ice, a collection of world-class athletes. One more chance to race against time.
Andrew Knot (’11) lives and writes in Cologne, Germany.