BEIJING — Long-track speedskating is the running of the Winter Olympics, with skaters gliding around a 400-meter oval in sprints (500 meters is the shortest race) and distance events (10,000 meters is the longest).
In most events in long-track speedskating — which is officially referred to simply as “speedskating” — only two skaters are on the ice at a time, and they are competing in an individual time-trial sport, not against each other. (That is in contrast to short-track speedskating, sometimes called Nascar on Ice, in which several skaters race simultaneously and sometimes crash spectacularly around a much smaller oval.)
Long-track skaters push their feet side to side to generate speeds of greater than 30 miles per hour, their arms swinging in a perfectly controlled and hypnotic arc. As the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard writes, at first it is difficult to tell the good from the great, and the sport seems quite boring. But keep watching and you will soon find the beauty and the drama absorbing, and grow to love the crisp sound of a metal blade slicing through ice.
The National Speed Skating Oval, nicknamed the ice ribbon, was the only new venue built for these Olympics in central Beijing, and it is absolutely gorgeous. It’s not likely that many Olympic or world records will be set here though. In speedskating, those are almost exclusively set in the province of ovals in Salt Lake City and Calgary, which are both at altitude and therefore provide less air resistance in a sport where a tenth or even a hundredth of a second matter.
Long-track speedskating kicks off Saturday night with the women’s 3,000 meters. There will be an event — and a gold medal awarded — practically every day of the Olympics. Here are some athletes to keep an eye on.
The United States, once the land of Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen and Shani Davis, has only won one long-track medal at the past two Winter Olympics, a bronze in 2018. But now U.S. Speedskating is poised for its best Olympics in a decade, led by three skaters from Ocala, Fla., who transitioned to the ice from in-line skating, and a teenage phenom from Wisconsin. The United States is particularly competitive in the shorter distances, and anything less than a handful of medals will be seen as a disappointment.
Closing Out the Games
Joey Mantia is one of the most decorated in-line skaters ever (the sport associated with Rollerblade), and he just missed out on a speedskating medal four years ago in Pyeongchang. Mantia, who turns 36 on Monday, is the top-ranked 1,500-meter skater in the world this year. He is also competitive in the mass start — the only individual race with more than two skaters on the ice at once — and leads the American team pursuit, which set a world record in December.
Brittany Bowe was one of the American flag bearers at the opening ceremony, and could win gold medals in both the 1,000 meters and the 1,500 meters. She also played college basketball at Florida Atlantic University.
Erin Jackson took up speedskating in 2017 and surprised everyone by making it to the Olympics the next year. She’s now ready to compete in earnest, having won a medal in six of the eight 500-meter World Cup races this season and winning four of them.
Jackson almost did not make it to Beijing, however, when she slipped at the U.S. Olympic trials and finished third. The Americans had been given only two starting spots in the 500 meters, but Bowe, who won the race at the trials, gave her spot to Jackson. Ultimately the gesture was unnecessary, as the United States was allocated a third spot in the race.
Jordan Stolz, a 17-year-old from Kewaskum, Wis., is competing overseas for only the second time. It would not be surprising if he breaks a Dutch stranglehold in the 1,000 meters. By his own admission his goal is just to break into the top five; if a few other skaters have a bad day, he could sneak onto the podium.
The Dutch, who have to fight through a brutal qualification process just to make it to the Olympics, are the undisputed masters of speedskating, and will take home a boatload of medals.
Irene Schouten is a dominant long-distance skater who is a good bet to win gold medals for years to come, and who won the first speedskating gold medal of these Games, in the 3,000 meters. Ireen Wüst is one of the most decorated Olympians in history and is looking to add to her legacy.
Thomas Krol will try to deny Stolz a medal in the 1,000 meters and Mantia one in the 1,500 meters, while Sven Kramer will try to win the 5,000 meters at a fourth straight Olympics.
Japan, Russia and Canada could all win a few medals, and there are competitive skaters from the rest of Europe and East Asia.
Miho Takagi is Bowe’s biggest rival, while her Japanese compatriot Nao Kodaira has gone head-to-head with Jackson this season. The Canadian women dominate the team pursuit, and Isabelle Weidemann, Ivanie Blondin and Valérie Maltais could all pick up distance medals.
The Swede Nils van der Poel looks absolutely untouchable, winning every long-distance race he entered this season and setting world records in both the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters in 2021.
The host nation is not particularly competitive at speedskating; Ning Zhongyan is the only Chinese skater likely to win a medal, in either the men’s 1,500 or 1,000 meters.