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'Slapskates' Melt Records, Anger Purists

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 30, 1997; Page D9

Photo Courtesy of Easton
This story about speedskating has some speed in it, and some skating, but mostly it has intrigue. It contains amazing feats, bitter anger and even a tiny bit of sex. It has scientists at work, seeking advances in technology as the 1998 Olympic Games approach. And it has a charitable major corporation aiding a few American athletes.

This story revolves around the slapskate, a small but expensive mechanical device that has upended the sport and seems certain to monopolize the feet of those on the medal stands at the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, this February.

The slapskate is a bolt-and-hinge mechanism that allows a skate blade to disconnect briefly from a skater's boot, thereby prolonging the blade's contact with the ice and increasing the skater's pushing capacity. The skate makes a clacking sound as it opens and closes with each stride. The device showed up in world-class speedskating last fall on the feet of women from the Netherlands and quickly caught on among top males. As a result, speedskating is spinning through dramatic, drastic change.

"Our sport has hardly changed in 80 years," said Chris Witty, the top American female sprinter. "In one year, we have had to go from traditional skates to these machines on ice."

Fourteen world records have been shattered and others appear to be under serious attack by slapskate wearers. Previously unregarded athletes have garnered attention in the new skates. Most of the world's top speedskaters — especially at longer distances — are wearing versions of the slapskate.

"I think we have proven that [slapskates] are the only way you can win," Canadian sprinter Susan Auch said recently.

A week ago Saturday in Calgary at the second event of the World Cup racing season, slapskate wearers set world records in the men's and women's 1,000 meters and the women's 500. The next day, each of those records was lowered or equaled. Witty set the world mark in the 1,000 meters with a time of 1 minute 15.43 seconds — more than two seconds better than Christa Rothenburger's mark of 1:17.65, which had stood for almost 10 years. The only event that did not see a world record was the men's 500.

Even as American speedskaters labored to keep up with this latest technology, finally acquiring the skates early this past summer, many were protesting their use.

KC Boutiette, considered the top American male at the middle and longer distances, said his first reaction to the skates was dismay — and a desire to bring another innovation to the starting line. He wanted "to get a mountain bike, put studs on the tires and show up with that. I was bitter," he said.

This past May, the U.S. International Speedskating Association embarked on a campaign to have slapskates banned for the 1997-98 racing season, including the Winter Olympic Games. The president of the U.S. speedskating association, Bill Cushman, declared in a letter to the president of the International Skating Union that "in our view, the slapskate is nothing more than a mechanical, performance-enhancing device."

"We want to keep the sport pure," Cushman said this month. "To our thinking, this is ... no different than doping ... [or] corking a baseball bat."

The ISU reviewed the issue in mid-summer and decided it had no basis on which to ban the skates, or even temporarily prevent their use. The ISU concluded that slapskates provide no multiplication of an athlete's force. The ISU's rulebook, which cannot be amended until next summer when its congress convenes, contains only one rule about skates: Blades may not be heated before competition.

"I don't think our international federation has really considered what type of impact this type of equipment is going to have," said Nick Thometz, U.S. speedskating's program director. "It's going to turn into a technical race as opposed to who has the best athletes."

ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta said Olympic officials would be instructed to inspect skates to ensure that no competitor wears equipment that provides a mechanical advantage.

"I like the skates," Cinquanta said. "But if this is just the warmup or the hors d'oeuvre of the next step where somebody else tries to introduce another mechanism, then I would be very much concerned."

Cinquanta has ordered one universal change regarding the skates. Before this summer, slapskates were called clapskates. Cinquanta said he called for a re-naming of the device when informed that "clap" was slang for a sexually transmitted disease.

Five-time Olympic gold medalist Bonnie Blair, who retired in 1994 and held the 500 world record until this past weekend, despises the new skates.

"One of the most frustrating things for skaters," Blair said, "is it doesn't really feel right."

Not so, says Nathaniel Mills, who resides in the Washington area and is bidding for his third Olympic Games. "My first reaction when I put them on was they felt so much more natural," Mills said. "Oh God, it was amazing. Your push flows through right to the end. Within two days, I felt like I was a better skater."

Regular skates tend to work the quadriceps, not the calf and feet muscles. In regular skates, a speedskater lifts his skate off the ice before he fully extends his leg. With slapskates, because the blade stays on the ice by separating from the skate, the skater continues pushing off, the motion extending through the skater's big toe.

But even Mills, one of the few Americans who likes the slapskates, calls them "a mechanical enhancing device. There is no question about that."

Gerrit Jan van Ingen Schenau strongly disagrees. A professor in biomechanics at Vrije Universiteit (Free University) in Amsterdam, Schenau has researched slapskates for nearly 20 years. "You have to deliver all the extra work yourself," Schenau said from his office in Amsterdam. "The idea is not only that more of the calf muscle is involved, but also the knee is much more involved."

Said Boutiette: "You don't have to be technically perfect on them. Someone could come out of nowhere who couldn't skate on regular skates and really light it up on slapskates."

Counters Schenau: "It replaces one type of coordination with another that requires its own type of perfection."

Slapskates have existed in the Netherlands since the 1890s. The modern slapskate was designed before the 1984-85 skating season by Dutch inventors, who worked in tandem with Schenau. The Dutch company Viking began producing the skates and soon became the biggest name in the slapskate industry.

The skates did not immediately attract the interest of the top skaters, but Dutch juniors trained in them. After their times showed improvement, several elite level women began racing in the skates. When Tonny de Jong of the Netherlands, wearing her slapskates, ended the three-year reign of German Gunda Niemann, wearing regular skates, in the European Championships last January, eyebrows were raised.

The skates broke into men's speedskating more slowly, but by February's world championships, seven of the top male skaters were wearing them, including overall world bronze medalist Frank Dittrich of Germany—who finished just ahead of Boutiette in the standings.

Many U.S. speedskaters were close to frantic at this point.

"At first our sprinters didn't realize these were the best things," Boutiette said. "Then toward the end of the season they were getting smoked, blown off the ice."

Schenau said theoretical calculations and data from the past year show that slapskates allow for improvement of nearly one second per lap, which is why they have made more of an impact in the longer events.

Americans had difficulty obtaining the skates, which can cost about $1,000 a pair, and some even accused the company of withholding the skates to give the Netherlands a competitive advantage.

Jim Easton, an Olympic Committee member who also happens to be president of Easton Sports, heard of the skaters' plight last spring. Easton sent top engineer Gary Filice to Milwaukee, where most of the top U.S. skaters train, to begin work on an Easton slapskate. The research and design were offered by Easton without cost. The U.S. speedskating association, however, intends to pay off the $12,000 to $15,000 in outside design costs Easton Sports has incurred.

"It's a technical challenge and a little patriotism," Easton said. "We're trying to help the Olympic team."

Because the idea of slapskates is not patented —. although certain design traits are — Easton Sports was able to borrow ideas from Viking's product. Filice led in the design of three prototypes. The latest slapskate was distributed near the end of October to about 50 American skaters.

Witty, Boutiette and Mills already have set personal or world bests in the slapskates. Boutiette set a world record in the 1,500 meters in slapskates at the Olympic Oval Finals last March, only to see the record fall a day later by another slapskate wearer, Canadian Neal Marshall. For the event, Boutiette said, he "bootlegged" a pair of Viking slapskates after futilely trying to order them.

Americans might not like the skates, but they are using them. So many records already have fallen during the 1997-98 season, which got underway Nov. 8-9 at the International Season Opening in Inzell, Germany, that there has been talk of giving slapskates their own category in record books, distinct from the regular skates.

"I don't think any [Olympic] gold medal will be won without them," Schenau said. "The impact will be enormous."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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