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>>> February 24, 2002 >>> Day 16
sports speed skating history

Long-Track Speed Skating History
Like many winter sports, skating developed as a means of transportation. It appeared first in Northern Europe, and was used as a quick way of getting across icy canals and rivers.

Charles Jewtraw of the United States won the first ever Winter Olympic gold in the 500m.
Photo: AFP
The first known skates, found by archaeologists around Bjoko, Sweden, date back to 300 AD. The blades were made of animal bones or antlers and fastened to a boot made of animal skins. In the 14th century, the Dutch upgraded the bone blades to highly waxed wooden runners, and by the 1500s the citizens of Holland had taken to the sport in large numbers. The vast network of canals across that country lent itself naturally to skating, both as a pastime and as an easy and sensible way of getting around.

In 1572, the Scots improved on the Dutch design with the introduction of iron blades, which were easier and cheaper to manufacture. Mass production hugely increased the accessibility and popularity of skating. By this time, two separate disciplines had developed: a type of figure skating, in which coordination and the ability to do figures on the ice were paramount, and racing, or speed skating.

In 1642 the Skating Club of Edinburgh was formed in Scotland: in order to join, candidates had to be able to skate in a circle on each foot (the first ever figures for which figure skating is named), and to jump over a pile of three hats placed on the ice. On February 4, 1763 the first recorded speed skating race was held on the Fens in England, and racing competitions soon spread across the country. Interestingly, British speed skaters tended to be labourers, while the judges were aristocrats, who preferred the more genteel sport of figure skating.

By the 1840s the speed-skating craze had hit North America. A club was established in Philadelphia in 1849, and skaters used the nearby Schuylkill River as their venue. A year later, American manufacturer E.W. Bushnell began marketing blades made of steel, which were lighter, didn't rust as badly and didn't need to be sharpened as often.

The birth of international speed skating
Eric Heiden of the United States on his way to one of five gold medals in 1980.
Photo: AFP
The first official speed skating event took place in 1863 in Oslo, Norway, and the first World Championships were held in The Netherlands in 1889. The Dutch event featured 500-metre, 1500m, 5,000m and 10,000m races -- exactly the same distances raced today in the men's all-round competitions. Shortly afterward, in 1892, the International Skating Union (ISU), was founded to oversee the organization of such events. This body still governs all major skating championships, including speed skating and figure skating, around the world.

In Canada, the first recorded skating race took place in 1854, when three British Army officers raced up the St. Lawrence River from Montreal to Quebec City. That same year, the first official speed skating championships were staged by the newly-founded Amateur Skating Association of Canada (which in 1960 was renamed the Canadian Amateur Speed Skating Association). Only 10 years later, in 1897, Montreal hosted the World Speed Skating Championship, attended by Norway, Germany and Canada. Winnipeg's Jack McCulloch won the world title that year.

Johann-Olav Koss of Norway was the dominant speed skater of the early 1990s.
Photo: AFP
By 1906 a more rough-and-tumble version of speed skating had appeared in North America. Races were held on shorter tracks - often on ice-hockey rinks - and as many as five people started at one time, compared to the more orderly two-at-a-time starts of long-track racing. This new format was called, appropriately, short-track speed skating, and by 1921 separate short-track races were being organized in both the U.S. and Canada.

The Olympic debut
In 1924, men's long-track speed skating made its debut at the first-ever Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix, France. American Charles Jewtraw won the very first gold medal in the 500m race, but it was the Finns who dominated, led by Clas Thunberg, who won three gold medals between 1924 and 1928.

Canada's first Olympic speed skating medals were won eight years later at the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, with Alexander Hurd, Frank Stack and William Logan winning one silver and four bronze between them. Women's speed skating was classed as a demonstration event that year, and the Canadians won three medals, including a gold and silver by Jean Wilson. It would be another 28 years before women's speed skating was made an official Olympic event at the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California.

Canada's Gaetan Boucher exults after winning gold in the men's 1,000m in 1984.
Photo: Canadian Press
Shortly afterward, in 1962, short track speed skating became a sanctioned discipline of the ISU. But it took another 30 years for short-track speed skating to become a full-medal Olympic sport, making its debut at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France.

In 1997, the introduction of the Dutch klap- or clap-skate into long-track speed skating revolutionized the sport. On clap-skates, the blade is hinged at the toe, rather than permanently set, allowing the full length of the blade to stay in contact with the ice longer with each stride. That increased contact between blade and ice allows for a more natural gait, and results in a significant increase in speed.

Notably, Canadian speed skating stars Catriona Lemay-Doan and Jeremy Wotherspoon both switched to clap-skates soon after their introduction. Using this new technology, Lemay-Doan skated to a world record en route to her gold medal in the 500m sprint at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.

Whatever the innovations, Dutch, Norwegian and American skaters have remained near the top of speed skating throughout its Olympic history, although Soviet skaters enjoyed a golden age in the 1960s, and Germany has produced a string of world beaters over the past two decades.

Heiden and company
Bonnie Blair of the United States winning the women's 1,000m. Blair closed the Lillehammer Games with five career gold medals.
Photo: AFP
After Thunberg, Norway's Ivar Ballangrud was the next big individual star, winning four gold medals from 1928 to 1936. Lydia Skobilova of the Soviet Union was the first big women's star, winning six gold medals in 1960 and 1964. The only woman to approach that level of dominance since was American sprint queen Bonnie Blair, who won three 500m gold and two 1,000m gold from 1988 to 1994.

Le May Doan and Susan Auch, a two-time 500m silver medallist, helped make Canada a power in the women's sprints, but the distance events in the 1990s were utterly dominated by the German women, led by Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann, who won eight medals, three of them gold, from 1992 to 1998, and Claudia Pechstein, winner of the last two 5,000m gold.

There have been commanding performances by male skaters, such as the triple gold-medal outings by Ard Schenk of the Netherlands in 1972 or Norway's Jan-Olav Koss in 1994, but one has dominated an Olympic sport the way Eric Heiden of the U.S. did in 1980 at Lake Placid. Heiden swept all five men's events in one of the all-time greatest Olympic performances in any event, summer or winter.

Gaetan Boucher of Canada did manage to win a silver behind Heiden in the 1,000m in 1980, but at the next Olympics at Sarajevo, with Heiden comfortably retired, Boucher emerged as the biggest star of the men's events, winning gold in the 1,000m and 1,500m and adding a bronze in the 500m for good measure.

Boucher remains the top Canadian winter Olympian of all time, but the 1998 Games ushered in the current generation of Canadian speedsters, like Le May Doan, Wotherspoon, Cindy Klassen and Mike Ireland, any of whom could return from Salt Lake City bedecked with medals.

Multiple Gold Medallists

Lydia Skoblikova, Soviet Union - 6
Bonnie Blair, United States - 5
Eric Heiden, United States - 5
Ivar Ballangrud, Norway - 4
Johann-Olav Koss, Norway - 4
Yevgeny Grishin, Soviet Union - 3
Tomas Gustafson, Sweden - 3
Karin Kania-Enke, East Germany - 3
Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann, Germany - 3
Ard Schenk, Netherlands - 3
Clas Thunberg, Finland - 3
Yvonne van Gennip, Netherlands - 3

The Legends

Clas Thunberg, Finland - 1924, 1928
Ivar Ballangrud, Norway - 1928, 1932
Lydia Skoblikova, Russia - 1960, 1964
Ard Schenk, Netherlands - 1972
Eric Heiden, U.S. - 1980
Gaetan Boucher, Canada - 1980, 1984
Karin Kania-Enke, East Germany - 1980, 1984, 1988
Yvonne van Gennip, Netherlands - 1988
Bonnie Blair, U.S. - 1988, 1992, 1994
Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann, Germany - 1992, 1998
Johann-Olav Koss, Norway - 1992, 1994
Dan Jansen, U.S. - 1994
Claudia Pechstein, Germany - 1994, 1998
Catriona Le May Doan, Canada - 1998
Gianni Romme, Netherlands - 1998

1 GER 12 16 7
2 NOR 11 7 6
3 USA 10 13 11
4 RUS 6 6 4
5 CAN 6 3 8
6 FRA 4 5 2
7 ITA 4 4 4
8 FIN 4 4 4
9 NED 3 5 0
10 SUI 3 2 6

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Patrick Bouchard  
Eric Brisson  
Arne Dankers  
Mike Ireland  
Mark Knoll  
Philippe Marois  
Kevin Marshall  
Dustin Molicki  
Jeremy Wotherspoon  

Susan Auch  
Kristina Groves  
Clara Hughes  
Cindy Klassen  
Catriona Le May Doan  
Cindy Overland  

Rintje Ritsma, Netherlands
Gianni Romme, Netherlands
Hiroyasu Shimizu, Japan
Adne Sondral, Norway
Casey FitzRandolph, United States

Anni Friesinger, Germany
Monique Garbrecht-Enfeldt, Germany
Claudia Pechstein, Germany
Jennifer Rodriguez, United States
Eriko Sanmiya, Japan
Maki Tabata, Japan
Aki Tonoike, Japan
Sabine Voelker, Germany
Chris Witty, United States
Svetlana Zhurova, Russia

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