Sports

Short-Track Speedskating: How It Works and Who’s Worth Watching

BEIJING — The first night of short-track speedskating at the Olympics did not disappoint. The hosts China won their first gold medal of the Games, the U.S. mixed relay team was disqualified, and there were Olympic records and exciting races aplenty.

Short track is the cooler, younger sibling to long-track speedskating — which gets to be referred to as speedskating, while the modifier “short track” is always necessary — the beach volleyball to gym volleyball, the slam dunk contest to the N.B.A. and the after-hours club to the low-key neighborhood bar.

In short track, packs of athletes race around a 111.12-meter oval, navigating sharp turns at speed with their bodies contorted until they are nearly parallel with the ice. It is a wonder that they are able to manage to retain enough friction on their skates to remain upright.

Sometimes they do not. For every daring pass and expertly negotiated turn, there is an unfortunate fall or a spectacular wipeout, with competitors sliding at speed into the soft pads that line the oval. Helmets and cut-resistant gloves are mandatory.

Short track is particularly popular in East Asia, with South Korea historically dominant and China a growing power. Canada, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia are also strong, while the United States wants to turn the clock back to the early 2000s, when it won medals aplenty and Apolo Anton Ohno was a megawatt star.

Skaters compete in races of 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters, as well as a men’s and women’s relay. Monday will feature finals of the men’s 1,000 meters and women’s 500 meters.

Here are some skaters to keep an eye on.

China won the mixed-gender relay event in short-track speedskating.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

Women

Suzanne Schulting, 24,has a legitimate shot at sweeping the individual medals and leading the Dutch to a win in the women’s relay. That is exactly what she did at the 2021 world championships, though athletes from several nations did not attend because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2018, Schulting won the first Olympic gold medal in short track for the Netherlands, which has historically been dominant in long track. She set an Olympic record while winning her 500-meter qualifying heat on Saturday, and she even tried to qualify to compete in long track at these Olympics, too, but was unsuccessful.

In most races, Schulting’s strategy is simple. She uses her immense power to go to the front immediately, separating from the pack and avoiding the chaos and crashes.

Kristen Santos, a 27-year-old from Fairfield, Conn., is the United States’ best hope for a medal. Her best event is the 1,000 meters, but she is competitive at each distance and is the fourth-ranked skater overall this season. She barely failed to qualify for the 2018 Olympics, in large part because an opponent’s skate sliced tendons in her hand and wrist weeks before the Olympic trials.

That lost chance has driven her to new heights. Missing the Olympics “was not the best feeling ever,” she said in an interview. “So just being able to use that experience and that feeling as motivation, and knowing I didn’t want to just go to the Games and be an Olympian — I wanted to be an Olympic medalist.”

When Arianna Fontana of Italy won her first Olympic medal in 2006, Schulting was just 8. Short-track speedskaters tend to retire young or transition to long track because of the injuries and stress the sport puts on bodies, but Fontana, 31, has endured, winning nine Olympic medals, the most ever in short track. Her specialty is the 500 meters, which she won in the 2018 Games.

Men

Shaolin Sandor Liu and Shaoang Liu are brothers who were born in Hungary to a Hungarian mother and a Chinese father. They speak Chinese and spent time training in China early in their lives. “My physique, my physical power is Hungarian, and my speed is Chinese,” Shaoang Liu has said. “I have both parts.”

The brothers led Hungary to an Olympic record and a gold medal in the 5,000-meter relay in 2018, its first ever Winter Olympics gold medal. They were also on the ice as Hungary took the bronze in the mixed-gender relay on Saturday.

Shaolin Sandor, the elder Liu brother, has won gobs of world and European championship medals. Shaoang — who arrived late to Beijing because he tested positive for the coronavirus in January — isn’t quite as accomplished, but has won a few himself.

Hwang Dae-heon of South Korea won three World Cup events this season and carried his red-hot form to Beijing, setting an Olympic record in the 1,000-meter qualifying heats on Saturday. Competitive across all distances, Hwang is particularly exciting to watch because he doesn’t play it safe.

“I just take an unconventional action depending on situations,” he said in 2019. “I love racing with unconventional and fancy techniques.”

Pascal Dion leads the Canadian men, who have been the strongest relay team this season. Dion is particularly adept in the 1,000 meters, making the finals at all four World Cup events this season and winning two of them. He has skipped the 500 meters recently, focusing on the longer races.

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