Yesterday, in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting Part 20, I looked at US cycling, a sport that was always fairly small yet managed to produce at least at the Olympic level. And which has simply blown up in the last 10 years due to the accomplishments of Lance Armstrong. This is the home stretch, OL’ing on Monday. Promise.
Continuing on with that, I want to look at another exception to everything that’s gone before, the sole winter sport I’m going to examine. A sport which seems to have absolutely everything going against it: it’s niche, inaccessible, has few members, no incentives. Basically it lacks everything that is usually required for success. Yet has managed to thrive consistently. And, of course, to adequately discuss this it will take today and tomorrow. Then, Monday, OL’ing. Finally.
Like cycling it is another sport pursued primarily by middle and upper class whites tying in both with swimming from Monday and cycling from the last two days. And which, if recent indications are any, err, indication, is dying on the vine. And if you know me or my site at all, you can probably guess what I’m going to talk about but read it anyway.
Note: if you are unhappy and/or bored with this series, it’s simple, stop reading it. Or just piss off until Monday when I start talking about OL’ing. But please don’t read daily and then try to troll me or whine about it. If you don’t like my series, there are plenty of other websites with nice, short, stupid articles for you to enjoy. Go read those and be happy; nobody is forcing you to come here. And I’ll turn this website around if it doesn’t stop, mister!
And with that out of the way, as promised, after you read this, prepare to be mindfreaked.
Winter Sports Redux
Throughout this series I’ve focused almost exclusively on summer sports for a number of unimportant reasons. But today I am going to talk about one and that means going back to the idea of the US and its winter Olympic sports performance. Do realize that, compared to the summer Games, the winter Olympics have not been contested as long (they were only created in 1924, lasted until 1936 and then were resumed in 1948 until the present).
As well, since there is a limit to how much you can dick around on snow and ice before it gets stupid (see also: curling), it’s never had nearly the number of sports as the summer games. There’s altogether too many derivatives of downhill skiing (an individual sport raced one at a time where you don’t find out the winner until the end) and it’s only with the recent addition of more ‘fan-friendly’ sports like snowboarding and boarder cross (downhill snowboarding on an obstacle course) and such that it’s gained even close to the recognition of the summer games.
Mind you, there are plenty of winter sport crazy countries. Mainly those where there’s snow on the ground most of the year and the only thing to do besides go crazy is go dick around in the snow or on the ice. They tend to do well in winter sports, just from an exposure point of view: kids grow up having to dick around in the snow for entertainment and they get pretty damn good at it. This is actually pretty important, there is often a ‘feel’ aspect to ‘dicking around in the snow/ice’ type sports that needs to be learned early.
Now, as I discussed in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 14, the US has actually done reasonably well at the Winter games, we’ve got the third highest total medal and gold medal count behind Norway (winter sports crazy) and Germany (no clue on this one). We’re good but not great and this is probably related to a few factors.
Some is just access, only certain parts of the US really have winter sports availability, as you get further south there’s not much snow and some parts of America will never see snow (case in point, in college, I had two friends from Hawaii who, as of age 22 had never seen snow; I took them up to the mountains and they commented ‘Looks like shave ice’). So that limits the number of athletes we can throw at it.
Some of it is the nature of a lot of winter sports, many of which are in that category of sports ‘Americans don’t get’ and hence ‘Don’t care about’. They tend to be individually competed without clear winners and losers (think all of the skiing events, ski jumping) and are just hard for us to follow. If biathlon were just blowing stuff up in the snow, we’d watch that. But the skiing bits bore us.
Figure skating is followed by certain very niche individuals (it’s just too artistic and don’t even get me started about ice dancing since there aren’t even jumps for people to ruin themselves with), hockey is big here because it’s a violent murder sport on skates. But most of the sports we just don’t get and aren’t that interested in past recreation (i.e. lots of Americans ski for fun since you go to the hot tub with chicks and booze afterwards).
Finally is the incentive issue, most winter sports lack big payoffs or financial incentives, only ice hockey (which is big in the US) has much of a professional end; the main benefit to being a top skiier is ski-bunnies. Which ties in with the Big Three discussion and who enters our sports and for what reasons. And that tends to be our underclass, which tends to be predominantly made up of non-whites. Who, at the risk of sounding racist as hell, aren’t usually big fans of cold weather.
It’s just an evolutionary thing: I’m Middle Eastern, my people are a desert people. I detest cold weather and can handle the hottest hot Austin can throw at me. Or as a big black bodybuilder friend of mine said when I was first going to Salt Lake City “Lyle, you know why speedskaters are all white? Because black people are smart enough to come in out of the cold.” Truth, Rod, Truth. And since he’s black it’s not racist of me to share that joke. Right?
But let’s be less racist and a bit more fact based, consider that the first Mexican-American winter Olympic gold (and world record) was won by Derek Parra, in the 1500m in long-track ice speedskating in 2002 in Salt Lake City. America’s first black winter Olympian was Shani Davis who won multiple medals in long-track ice speedskating in Torino in 2006.
The winter games have been contested roughly 80 years and our first Mexican and/or African-American winter medalists are in the last decade. That’s telling. But hang about, that’s is kind of an odd coincidence, our first two ethnic American winter Olympics medalists are both in long-track ice speedskating.
Because here’s your trivia question for the day: What winter sport is responsible for the greatest number of American winter medals (both total and gold)? Bonus points: What winter sport does America have the highest total gold medal count over every other country?
Here’s a hint: The answer starts with ‘speed’ and ends with ‘skating’. And you all knew I’d be talking about this today. And also tomorrow since I’m too wordy.
Prepare to be mindfreaked.
US Speedskating OWNS
First let’s look at the proportion of total winter medals won by the US and the top three sports that they come from.
|Long Track Speed Skating||29||22||16||67|
So nearly 25% of our total medals and over 30% of our gold medals come from the long-track end of the sport (there is also short-track speed skating but it’s relatively new to the Olympics; it’s in 6th place of our total winter haul). But how do we stack up against the world and the rest of those crazy assed winter countries? Again, let’s look at the numbers.
|Speed Skating Medal Totals
Mind you it’s pretty damn close in terms of total gold medals and the other two countries (The Soviet Union is in 4th by the way with 60 total medals and 24 golds) have more total medals but we still have the most golds. And this isn’t just unusual because it’s a winter sport but because of the setup of speedskating in this country which is why I’m talking about it.
Because, having spent 5.5 years pursuing the sport (as discussed in the No Regrets series) I am in somewhat of a unique position to discuss the sport within the context of this overall series. Because in addition to skating around an ice oval for too much time I did my normal OCD brain raid thing and bugged the ever loving crap out of people with my questions about the sport.
Because speedskating in the US would appear, at first glance, to break every rule I’ve presented in this stupidly long series. It’s a situation that has more or less existed for at least the past 30 years (as long as my coach has been involved with the sport) and possibly longer than that. My friend Eva Rodansky, who’s book Winter of Discontent I still recommend is where much of the information I’m going to share comes from. The rest comes from conversations with my coach and what I observed myself during my incarceration in SLC.
So as usual I want to look at the sport, the physiology and genetics, and other requirements before showing you a sports setup that should fail and yet doesn’t. Or hasn’t yet.
Now, are you ready for some, err, speedskating?
Ice Speedskating: A Primer
It would not surprise me to learn that my website has proportionally more speedskating interested readers than most simply because I talk about it from time to time. It’s an exceedingly niche sport, especially in the US and mostly the only folks who pay any attention to it are the ones involved in the sport or their moms. Like track and field and swimming, most of the US could give the first damn and nobody is even aware of it except when the Winter Olympics is on. When that’s done, they go back to watching football and WWF. Or the amazingness that is IceMotorSports.
But during those 2.5 weeks of the Winter Olympics everybody watches and goes “That looks so cool.” and gets really excited about it. Coaches and the oval get tons of interested phone calls for about 2 weeks afterwards, people who are going to dedicate their life to the sport and be the next great skater. And then nobody shows up (or they are blown off by the federation who tells them they are too old to consider starting skating so they don’t even try).
The sport actually has two branches at the international/Olympic level: metric long-track and short-track. Metric long-track is raced on a 400m ice oval, just like a running track but made out of ice. Events range from 500m (taking roughly 35 seconds) to 10,000m (taking 12.5 minutes for the best) with 1000, 15000, 3000m (women only), and 5000m having intermediate times (~1:18, 1:45, 4 minutes, and 6.5 minutes respectively). It’s an odd sport, racers go two at a time and it’s all about the clock. While you have to beat your pair to take first, all that matters is who has the best time at the end of the day.
In a typical competition, 20 pairs of skaters will race (so 40 total skaters) and the fastest time at the end of it all wins. Try to imagine racing NASCAR two cars at a time and then finding out who won at the end by seeing who was fastest. It’s like that. There are rarely crashes and when they occur they are pretty dull, the only blowups are metaphorical and frankly, it’s dull as dirt to watch (it’s pretty dull to do).
Even though skaters are going 30-35 mph (trivial tidbit: ice speedskating is the fastest human powered non-geared activity; recumbent cycling is the fastest geared human powered activity), it just doesn’t look that fast as you’ll see in the first video below. The cadence of skating is too slow, the track too long. Here’s a video of Sven Kramer skating the 5000m to give you an idea. He’s going 30 mph but it sure doesn’t look it.
Yeah, yaaaawn. So by the criteria I laid out previously, it’s really not a sport that Americans should get or care to watch. Mind you, it’s enormous in countries like Norway and Sweden, top skaters there are like football players here. Just absolute rockstars. Eric Heiden (who won all 5 gold medals in speed skating in 1980) once quipped that when he wanted to be a celebrity he’d go to Sweden, when he wanted to be anonymous again, he’d go back to Wisconsin.
I suspect that, when the Winter Olympics are on, people in the US watch long-track because it looks kinds of cool and the other winter sports are even more boring. Mainly the latter. But imagine watching this 20 times (at about 6 minutes a race that’s 2 hours of this) and then finding out at the very end who won. Like road cycling, it’s something that drives bored Europeans nuts. To an American, well…yawn.
The other branch is short-track which was only added to the games in 1988. That’s raced on a hockey rink and a 111m track. It’s all about top speed, corners, tactics and agility, 4-8 racers are on the track at once and first guy across the line wins. It’s dynamic, explosive, dramatic and you can see lots of guys slamming into the pads at high speeds all the time. There’s a huge random factor and the best skater doesn’t always win. Here’s a video showing some awesome short-track crashes.
It is a sport that appeals to the coarse American mindset: the rules make sense, it’s fun to watch and you get to see people getting ruined. Mention speed skating to an American and the first question is “You mean what Apolo Anton Ohno does?” He’s a short-tracker. Now ask them to name a long-track skater and watch them go “What’s a long-track?”. Exactly.
Location, Location, Location
Given that skating occurs on a 400m ice oval (taking up 7 acres of ice), you can probably guess that facilities are not particularly easy to come by. Quite in fact, long-track speed skating is a nearly impossible sport to get into in the US. Up until the 1990’s, all ovals were outside (Lake Placid is one, built for the Olympics) which meant not only freezing your ass off (and skaters must wear skinsuits, we don’t bundle up like skiiers) but waiting for the ice to freeze. Many places just waited for the lakes to freeze and marked off a track which limited the sport to frozen tundras with lakes big enough to mark off a 400m oval (and that freeze solid enough that you don’t fall through the ice).
Most American speedskaters came from the northeast and specifically the Minnesota/Wisconsin area for that reason. You had to live in a state that froze solid AND had a big lake to have access of any sort (you could also mark off a shorter track as needed but it wasn’t optimal). There were one or two other outdoor ovals (one in Butte for example) but that was it. To pursue the sport meant living in one of those few locations. Or relocating.
For most of the time in the sport, US skaters were also hampered by the fact that the big ovals wouldn’t freeze soon enough and they couldn’t get onto the ice until months after their European counterparts did. Unless they had the cash to fly to Europeland to train, they were out of luck (or skated short-track to get some ice time). My own coach would do dryland for 6 months, short-track for 6 weeks, long-track for 6-weeks and then short-track for 6-weeks. So maybe 6 weeks of long track per year if he was lucky. That’s not ideal in a sport that is monstrously technique heavy.
In 1992, the Petit Center was built in Wisconsin, it’s a huge drafty building but at least it’s indoors which means that they can use compressors to freeze the ice and skaters can skate more. Canada got Calgary in the late 90’s and many American skaters headed up there to train. In 2002, they built the Utah Olympic Oval, the fastest ice in the world (except when Calgary is fastest and explaining what that means would take too much space and time) and arguably the premier facility in existence. The way the management runs it, it will soon be the Fastest Costco on Earth. But if you don’t live in Placid, Butte, Wisconsin or Utah, you can’t pursue the sport. And for most of the time the sport existed in this country, there were even fewer options.
Short-track is different; since it’s raced and trained on a hockey rink, there’s a lot more access. It requires specialized pads but beyond that, if there’s a hockey rink and ice time, you can skate. You can find short-track skaters coming from all over the country, Florida, California, you name it. Anywhere there is a hockey rink, you have crash pads and folks can skate you can short-track and it’s a much more diverse sport for that reason.
Genetics and Physiology
Speed skating is an insanely odd sport. You’re balancing on a razor sharp 1.1mm flat blade (it’s the width of the dime) in boots with no ankle support and you have to somehow get around the ice at speed doing what amounts to a 1-legged sideways jump repeatedly. The technical demands are stupid and it’s a movement like no other; you push sideways to go forwards, the posture is horrible; basically it’s an orthopedists wet dream. Read the No Regrets series for more details or look at the videos. The sport is all about corners and the technique there is even stranger. It’s hugely assymetrical, critical to going fast and everybody has back problems because of it.
From a physiological standpoint, the sport gets even weirder. Like many sports it has no true sprint, even the 500m takes 35 seconds. Most of the races are in that weird middle ground in terms of duration ( Men’s records are roughly 1000m = 1:17, 1500m = 1:43, 5000m = about 6 minutes, 10,000m = 12 minutes). You can look up the women’s records on your own but they are in that same weird middle distance area time wise.
More importantly, except at the Olympic level (where individual distances are contested for medals), male skaters either race the sprint program which means they race the 500m and 1000m twice (and the lowest combined time wins) or the all-around which means they race 500m, 1500m, 5000m, and 10,000m across two days (women race a slightly different program since they race the 3000 and 5000).
The World Champion is determined by a convoluted equation (called the Samalog which I will not explain) for all 4 events (500, 1500, 5000, 10,000 for men). It favors the distances for reasons I’m also not explaining but ultimately the best skater in the world has to be proficient at events ranging from ~35 seconds to 12.5 minutes at the highest levels. It’s like all those guys in track and field running the 400m/5000m double. Wait, what?
But it goes beyond that, the posture of skating, the knee bend and bent overness means even the 10,000m is highly anaerobic, speed skating generates the highest lactate levels of any sport and you see higher levels of acidosis at any VO2 compared to every other sport. And even individual laps are skated interval fashion, you work the corners and try to recover a bit on the straightaways. It’s not aerobic, it’s not anaerobic, it’s just completely and utterly fucked.
As well every race is done at maximum effort over the distance. The only tactic really is optimizing how you pace to get the best time. They are all just individual time trials because all that matters is your finish time. And they all hurt except maybe the 500m which is over before the pain really starts. Some skaters will have a hacking cough for an entire day after a 1500m race (it’s the worst race of the bunch, short enough to be all out, long enough to HURT; it’s like the 800m on the track). It’s called the 1500m hack. Many throw up.
There is also the static glide component, for 0.8 seconds of every 1 second push, you’re gliding on one skate in an isometric position while you get yourself into the right position to push. Ideally you also maintain a knee angle of 90-100 degrees (shorter distances = lower angles) to minimize wind resistance. This requires sufficient strength to hold that position (especially against rapidly accumulating acidosis which makes you want to stand up to make the hurt stop).
My coach once said that a good workout in speedskating was one in which you called out God’s name in pain. And a great workout is one in which you ask that God take you from this world to make the suffering stop. I wish he had been joking. It’s that kind of sport.
And the upshot of this is that the sport just has this amazingly broad set of physiological characteristic that are required with technique being arguably the single most important; without that you don’t get anywhere. One early review paper concluded that the ideal muscle fiber type for the sport is 50% slow twitch and 50% fast twitch. Skaters need strength, speed, power, technique AND endurance. I haven’t decided if it’s a sport requiring ultimate mediocrity or ultimate development. Contradictorily, it might be both.
Times They Are a Changin’
I’d note and this is relevant to comments I’ll make about Ol’ing that the demands of the sport of speedskating have changed in recent years. Skaters back in the day were monsters, 6′ plus and 180+ lbs. They were hella strong too, half squats of 2.5X body weight for 5 reps were standard and Eric Heiden had 32 inch thighs (he also competed before anabolics were banned). He also once squatted 200lbs for 300 reps straight (an athlete of my coach’s SAW it, this isn’t a friend of a friend story). His coach had actually given him 2 sets of 150 reps but he had a date so he just did 300 straight so he could finish faster. And you think sets of 20 are tough.
But this was in the era of outdoor ovals and crappy ice. Headwinds stop smaller skaters in their tracks, the ice quality was crap and technique wasn’t as refined so athletes had to make up for it by just being strong to overpower the ice. Nowadays, with the move to indoor ovals, things have changed. The ice is perfect, winds are eliminated, it’s a much more technical sport. I’ve seen elite sprinters squatting no more than maybe body weight and even bike power outputs just aren’t there like they used to be (speedskaters often switched to road or track cycling and did extremely well back in the 80’s).
It’s become a technician’s sport and skaters are improving now by spending more time on the ice (facilitated by the indoor ovals as well) and less time doing non-specific donkey work in the weight room or on the bike. The Dutch, who still develop outdoors, still bring monsters to the table, mind you. But other countries, including the US often field much smaller skaters (one of our top developing sprinters is maybe 165 lbs).
I’d note only briefly that short-track is a very different sport. It’s based around tactics, agility, explosive power and speed. Short-track requires very different physiologies and even psychologies than long-track. And even thought short-track skaters can do well in long-track (they have the corners) there is little crossover. That’s psychological and I used to hear short-track skaters say “Long-track hurts too much, I’ll just sit in the pack and sprint with two to go.”
And the upshot of all of the above is that, given the nature of the sport, you wouldn’t expect any specific ethnic group to dominate like in track sprinting or the distances. It’s a sport requiring a very non-specialized set of physiological characteristics; honestly most of the sport is about technique and something called ice feel.
Because as I learned for 5.5 years, all the fitness or strength or bike power in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t put it into the ice. It’s like swimming where water feel is equally important; and why you can see an 8 year old with good technique and water/ice feel destroy an adult who is much stronger and fitter. Of course, at the top level, skaters have technique/ice feel and physiological development.
More than that, due to the specifics of the sport, the countries involved (mostly winter countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden), it’s a very lilly white sport (with most Americans coming from that same middle- or upper class white background that most swimmers and cyclists usually come from).
As I mentioned above, two of the only minority athletes to break through were Derek Parra (Hispanic) and Shani Davis (African American) and that’s pretty much it (again, short-track has more diversity but long-track is really my focus). And interestingly, while both might have had the potential to generate a cultural tradition for minorities in the sport, it really hasn’t happened. I don’t know why but it just didn’t.
But before going on, let’s look at another issue.
We’re the Best, What About the Rest?
As the medals count I gave above showed, while the US has the most gold medals, it’s actually pretty even at the top level. Countries with huge winter sports and skating traditions like the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway are traditional powers and it’s worth mentioning that they typically dominate in the longer distances (5k and 10k) with very little success in the sprints (the 1500m is right in the middle).
This is actually due to the sheer popularity of the sport along with there not being much to do in a frozen country. Go to open ice in Norway and you’ll apparently find 5000+ people skating all at once (imagine that many people on your local running track). You can’t do speed work in that environment and kids just grow up grinding lap after lap. As they get faster they move to the inside of the track and if they are good they get selected for teams. By the time they hit their teens they are fantastic endurance skaters and can skate forever but don’t have the top speed to do the short stuff. And that’s harder to develop.
The Soviets fielded some good guys of course and Japanese and Chinese skaters have often done well in the sprints (their femur length which is generally short allows them to sit deeper more easily which gives them an advantage in the speed stuff). Germany has had a lot of very good skaters (many of whom have failed drug tests, not unsurprisingly) and skate crazy Canada has traditionally been strong as well because everybody skates up there and kids who don’t like ice hockey or figure go to speed.
So it more or less makes sense that all of the countries above would consistently produce speed skaters. But what about the US, what’s the sport look like here? Is there any logical reason that our more or less not winter sport loving country should not only produce in this one sport but have it represent the majority of our Winter medals?
And that’s where I’ll pick up/wrap up tomorrow. By looking at not only how this obscure niche sport manages to medal but how it might have done it. I’ll also give you a look at how a sport can manage to kill itself.
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 22
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 14
- No Regrets Part 3
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Notes to the Nitpickers
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 8