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Clap if You Love Speedskating

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, February 10, 1998; Page D1




Michael Wilbon

NAGANO — Welcome to Olympic speedskating, where todayís record holder can also be todayís chump.

Skater in a phone call home: "Mom, the good news is I set an Olympic record 45 minutes ago. The bad news is Iím now in 11th place."

An Italian skater named Ermanno Ioriatti must have been feeling pretty good about himself when he began the menís 500-meter competition by setting an Olympic record. The feeling didnít last. An American, Casey FitzRandolph, broke Ioriattiís new record a few minutes later. A few minutes after that, Canadian Kevin Overland broke FitzRandolphís record. And then Japanís Hiroyasu Shimizu broke Overlandís record. In all, of the 41 skaters who finished the first half of the menís sprint skate Monday, 11 beat the mark that was the Olympic record when the session began. In Sundayís menís 5,000-meter race the world record was broken three times in less than two hours.

Why?

Technology.

Clap skates and glued-on uniform strips, to be exact.

Technology hasnít changed a sport so dramatically since marathoners began wearing shoes. Or at least not since tennis rackets went from wood to graphite. Skaters and coaches believe the clap skates can reduce times by as much as one-half second per lap, which will enable skaters to obliterate long-distance records here at the Olympics, and even more dramatically in upcoming international events as they get used to the new skates. The conversation around the fittingly futuristic M-Wave arena, where the speedskaters are competing, is less about whoís winning than how the sport is evolving at warp speed.

"Itís certainly progress, and itís hard to stand in the way of progress," said Eric Heiden, Mr. Speedskating from the 1980 Olympics and now a television analyst, after Mondayís record-breaking extravaganza. "And what happened here today all points down to what people are wearing on their feet."

The concept behind the clap skates is fairly easy to understand. Thereís a mechanism, basically a hinge-and-spring device manufactured in the Netherlands, that attaches to the skate and allows the entire blade to stay on the ice a fraction of a second longer than the traditional blade. That drag allows the skater better balance and a stronger push on every stride, thus a faster pace. The skates have been around in some form for 100 years. Dutch children have been wearing them forever. But nobody thought about using them in competition until recently when some of those Dutch children grew up and began competing in international junior races. Suddenly, it became obvious to everyone that the Dutch skaters had an advantage that human resources alone couldnít overcome.

"What the International Skating Union needs to do," Canadian Coach Derrick Auch said, "is regulate innovation to make sure thereís no motors or gears next."

Heiden added: "But you have to make sure everyone has a chance to obtain it and everyone has a chance to try it. You remember Ard Schenk, the great Dutch skater [1968 bronze medalist, 1972 gold medalist]? He canít even get a pair [of clap skates] from the Dutch company which makes them. You have to use them now. You have to. But it caught a lot of skaters off guard. And now people are scrambling to get ahold of a mechanism and they canít make them fast enough."

Heiden said he hadnít yet tried clap skates. But another well-known American Olympian, Dan Jansen, said he has. His impression? "They work," he said, adding that every record—menís and womenís—in the distance races will fall soon, or very soon. "Itís changed the sport in every aspect," said Jansen, also working as a broadcast analyst.

Clap skates have been around long enough for almost everybody in the skating community to have a feel for them, but these mysterious strips are another story. Depending on whom you talk to, theyíre either the coolest aerodynamic invention you can think of, or a psych job that has absolutely no effect on wind and (thus) time reduction.

Again, this is pretty much a Dutch deal. "The strips are made of silicon," Heiden said. "The Dutch skating officials tested it primarily in a stationary position. And the coefficient of drag is reduced using those strips. They break up the wind as it comes around you. And wind resistence is one of the biggest obstacles."

You canít believe what a buzz these strips have caused. Some skating folks say the Dutch are playing mind games, that the strips are totally bogus. The Dutch point to their skaters finishing 1, 2, 3 (a Dutchman skating for Belgium won the bronze), and 4 in the 5,000. When Canadaís Robert Trembley was told the Dutchmen said Canadians were wearing the strips incorrectly, Trembley said, "Thatís what they say. We donít think so. . . ."

So in theory, strips that "break up the wind" should help anybody, right? Wouldnít Gheorghe Muresan be faster if he could break up all the wind surrounding him? Nobody seems to have any answers about these silicon strips because the ISU only approved them Monday before the start of competition here. "I just heard about the strips for the first time yesterday," Jansen said. "Letís go back to skating, because itís getting frustrating with all these things."

That wonít be possible.

Reportedly, not one competitor here is using traditional skates. More and more appear to be wearing the strips. Seconds are being shredded like wind. So what comes after silicon strips? Whatís the next wind-piercing innovation? "Maybe," Heiden said, "skaters will just be born in the shape of a wedge."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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