Winter Olympics 2018: A beginner's guide to speed skating, one of the most enthralling sports at Pyeongchang Games

Speed skating is one of the most enthralling Winter Olympic sports as it is simple, straightforward and easy to understand. Speed skating has similarities with track and field events as the fastest athlete at the end of the race wins.

The sport was originally a method of transportation across frozen lakes and rivers in Scandinavia and the Netherlands in the 13th century. The Dutch eventually adopted speed skating as their national sport and they continue to dominate it globally.

Speed skating events at the Winter Olympics generally follow the European format - which consists of skaters competing two-by-two. However, at Pyeongchang, a mass start format has also been included.

Olympic sport since: 1924

Categories: There will be 14 events contested under speed skating at Pyeongchang.

Both men and women compete individually in the 500m, 1,000m, 1,500m and 5,000m. The women also compete over 3,000m and the men race 10,000m.

There are two events in speed skating which differ from the rest of the formats: the team pursuit and the newly-introduced mass start.

File photo of Sven Kramer of the Netherlands skating against compatriot Jan Blokhuisen at the European Speed Skating Championships in January 2017. Reuters

File photo of Sven Kramer of the Netherlands skating against compatriot Jan Blokhuisen at the European Speed Skating Championships in January 2017. Reuters

Top contenders: The Netherlands are favourites when it comes to speed skating. The country holds the record for the most Olympic medals won in history with 105. Thirty-five of those are gold, which is also a record. They won 23 medals in speed skating at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Ronald Mulder, Kai Verbij of the Netherlands are among the top contenders in the men while Choi Min-Jeong of South Korea is hoping to win gold for the hosts in the women's field.

Event schedule: 10 to 24 February

Medals at stake: 14

How does it work?

In speed skating, the athletes race in pairs around an oval track. The racing rink has two lanes, and the skaters change lanes in a specified section in every circle, with the skater that started in the "out" course coming to the "in" course and vice versa.

Speed skating in action:


The swapping is done to equalise the distance covered by the skaters as the inner lane of the oval covers a shorter distance than the outer lane (although there is no changing of lanes on the first straight of the 1,000m and the 1,500m). The fastest time in the field wins.

Swapping of lanes


In the team pursuit event, two teams of three athletes each start out from opposite sides and the final ranking is determined by the time that the third skater takes to pass the finish line. In the men's, the teams race eight laps of the rink while the women compete over six laps.

In the mass start event, a maximum of 24 skaters take off at the same time in an open racing track (without designating inner or outer lanes for a particular athlete) and race for 16 laps. The first three skaters to cross the finish line end up on the podium, as with all other racing events. This is the straightforward part of the mass start.

But after that, a system called "sprint points" comes into play. During the race, points are awarded to the winners of "premium" laps 4, 8 and 12. The highest sprint points at the end of the race determine fourth to sixth place.

This is what the mass start looks like:


Field of play:

Skaters race on a two-lane oval rink similar in dimension to an outdoor athletics track. The Olympic track is of a standard length – 400m.

On these standard tracks, the curves have a radius of 25–26m in the inner lane, and each lane is 3 to 4m wide. At the Winter Olympics, the speed skating event will be held at the Gangneung Oval in Gangneung.

Equipment required:

Speed skaters use a type of skates called the "clap skates". The blades of these skates are hinged at the front of the boot and detach at the heel, allowing the skater a more natural range of movement.

The blades are about 1 mm thick and typically come in lengths from 33 to 46 cm. Most competitive athletes use lengths between 38 and 43 cm, depending on body size and personal preference.

Skates of American speed skater Brian Hansen during training at the Pyeonchang Winter Olympics. Reuters

Skates of American speed skater Brian Hansen during training at the Pyeonchang Winter Olympics. Reuters

The rules of speed skating dictate that the suits follow the natural shape of the athlete's body. Hence, drop-shaped helmets (as seen in cycling) or other inventive "Donald Duck" costumes are not allowed.

The speed skaters pay a lot of attention to reducing air pressure and a lot of time and money is spent developing fabrics, cuts and seams that will reduce drag. The skaters also prefer wearing glasses or goggles to protect their eyes.

Updated Date: Feb 09, 2018 15:28 PM

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