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Speed skating or speedskating is a competitive form of ice skating in which the competitors race each other in traveling a certain distance on skates. Types of speedskating are long track speedskating, short track speedskating and marathon speed skating. In the Olympic Games, long track speedskating is usually referred to as just speedskating, while short track speedskating is known as short track. The ISU, governing body of both ice sports, refers to long track as "speed skating" and short track as "short track speed skating".

Long track speed skating

Long track speed skating is performed on ice. It is one of two Olympic forms of the sport and the one with the longer history. An international federation was founded in 1892, the first for any winter sports. The sport enjoys large popularity in the Netherlandsmarker and Norwaymarker. There are top international rinks in a number of other countries, including Canadamarker, the United Statesmarker, Germanymarker, Italymarker, Japanmarker, South Koreamarker, Chinamarker and Russiamarker. A World Cup circuit is held with events in the two countries, and with two events in Thialfmarker, the ice hall in Heerenveenmarker, the Netherlandsmarker.

The sport is described as long track in American usage because a 400 m oval is used, as opposed to a 111 m oval on a hockey rink in short track skating.

Races are exclusively held as time trials, with skaters starting in pairs or, in lower-level racing, in quartets. The skaters do one inner curve and one outer curve on each lap, changing on the back straight. There is thus no real need to standardize the inner radius of each curve, as long as the length of an outer plus an inner plus two straights equals 400 meters. The International Skating Union rules allow some leeway in the size and radius of curves.

Short track speed skating

Short track skating is mass start racing on a smaller rink, normally the size of an ice hockey rink. Distances are shorter than in long track racing, with the longest Olympic race being the 1500 metres. Races are usually held as knockouts, with the best two in heats of four or five qualifying for the final race, where medals are awarded. Disqualifications and falls are not uncommon.

The sport originates from packstyle events held in North America, and was officially sanctioned in the 1970s, becoming an Olympic sport in 1992. Although this form of speed skating is newer, it is growing faster than long track speed skating.

Marathon speed skating

Ice marathon races, also known as packstyle races, are long distance races with mass start, where the first to complete a set number of laps wins (on an oval), or the first to the finish line wins (in case of outdoor races such as the Elfstedentocht).

Marathon races are not officially governed by the International Skating Union, but the Dutch skating federation organises races both in the Netherlands and abroad, due to the lack of natural ice nowadays in the Netherlands.


Racing can be done with individual start, as in long track speed skating or in time trial races of inline skating, where a maximum of four skaters start at the same time. Skaters are timed, and the times are compared at the end. Races may also be held with a mass start, as is done in marathon ice speed skating, marathon skating, tour skating, short track skating or in most roller skating events. The first skater to cross the finish line wins, though there may be a series of eliminating heats where finishing among the top fraction of the participants is enough to advance in the competition.

There are variations on the mass start races. In the regulations of roller sports, eight different types of mass starts are described: among them are elimination races, where one or more competitors are eliminated at fixed points during the course; simple distance races, which may include preliminary knockout races; endurance races with time limits instead of a fixed distance; points races; and individual pursuits.

Races will usually have some rules about disqualification if an opponent is unfairly hindered; these rules vary between the disciplines. In long track speed skating, almost any infringement on the pairmate is punished, though skaters are permitted to change from the inner to the outer lane out of the final curve if they are not able to hold the inner curve, as long as they are not interfering with the other skater. In mass start races, skaters will usually be allowed some physical contact.

Team races are also held; in long track speed skating the only team race at the highest level of competition is the team pursuit, though athletics-style relay races are held at children's competitions. Relay races are also held in short track and inline competitions, but here exchanges may take place at any time during the race, though exchanges may be banned during the last couple of laps.

Most races are held on an oval course, but there are exceptions. Oval sizes vary; in short track speed skating the rink must be an oval of 111.12 metres, while long track speed skating uses a similarly standardized 400 m rink. Inline skating rinks are between 125 and 400 metres, though banked tracks can only be 250 metres long. Inline skating can also be held on closed road courses between 400 and 1,000 metres, as well as open road competitions where starting and finishing lines do not coincide. This is also a feature of outdoor marathons.

In the Netherlands, marathon competitions may be held on natural ice, on canals, lakes or rivers, but may also be held on artificially frozen 400 m tracks, with skaters circling the track 100 times, for example.


Most skating sports have origins beyond the 20th century, with long track speed skating the first to be organised with international competition. In Heimskringla, king Eystein Magnusson, later king Eystein I of Norway, boasts of his skills racing on ice legs. Touring rivers on ice skates has been known since at least the 18th century, when people began to skate between the 11 cities of Friesland, a challenge that gave rise to the Elfstedentocht.

ISU development

Jaap Eden, the first official world champion.
Organised races on ice skates developed in the 19th century. Norwegian clubs hosted competitions from 1863, with races in Christiania (nowadays known as Oslomarker) drawing five-digit crowds. In 1884, the Norwegian Axel Paulsen was named Amateur Champion Skater of the World after winning competitions in the United Statesmarker. Five years later, a sports club in Amsterdam invited to an ice skating event they called a world championship, with participants from Russiamarker, the United Statesmarker and the United Kingdommarker as well as the host country. The Internationale Eislauf Vereinigung, now known as the International Skating Union, was founded at a meeting of 15 national representatives in Scheveningen in 1892, the first international winter sports federation. The Nederlandse Schaatsrijderbond was founded in 1882, and had organised the world championships of 1890 and 1891. Competitions were held around tracks of varying lengths – the 1885 match between Axel Paulsen and Remke van der Zee was skated on a track of 6/7 miles (1400 metres) – but the 400 metre track was standardised by ISU in 1892, along with the standard distances for world championships, 500 m, 1500 m, 5000 m and 10,000 m. Skaters were to start in pairs, each to their own lane, and changing lanes for every lap to ensure that each skater completed the same distance. This is what is now known as long track speedskating. Competitions were exclusively for amateur skaters, and rules were applied: Peter Sinnerud was disqualified for professionalism in 1904, and lost his world title.

Long track world records were registered since 1891, and improved rapidly, Jaap Eden lowering the world 5000 metre record by half a minute during the Hamar European Championships in 1894. The record stood for 17 years, and it took 50 years to lower it by further half a minute.

Elfstedentocht and Dutch history

The Elfstedentocht was organised as a competition in 1909, and has been held at irregular intervals whenever the ice on the course is deemed good enough. Other outdoor races developed later, with Noord-Holland hosting a race in 1917, but the Dutch natural ice conditions have rarely been conducive to skating. The Elfstedentocht has been held 15 times in the nearly 100 years since 1909, and before artificial ice was available in 1962, national championships had been held in 25 of the years between 1887, when the first championship was held in Slikkerveermarker, and 1961. Since artificial ice became common in the Netherlands, Dutch speed skaters have been among the world top in long track ice skating and marathon skating. Another solution to still be able to skate marathons on natural ice became the Alternative Elfstedentocht. The Alternative Elfstedentocht races take part in other countries like Austriamarker, Finlandmarker or Canadamarker and all top marathon skaters as well as thousands of recreative skaters travel from outside the Netherlands to the location where the race is held. According to the NRC Handelsblad journalist Jaap Bloembergen, the country "takes a carnival look" during international skating championships, despite the fact that "people outside the country are not particularly interested."

Speed Skating

At the 1914 Olympic Congress, the delegates agreed to include ice speed skating in the 1916 Summer Olympics in 1916 Olympics, after figure skating had featured in the 1908 Olympics. However, World War I put an end to the plans of Olympic competition, and it wasn't until the winter sports week in Chamonix in 1924 – retrospectively awarded Olympic status, that ice speed skating reached the Olympic programme.Charles Jewtraw from Lake Placid, New York won the first Olympic gold medal, though several Norwegians in attendance claimed Oskar Olsen had clocked a better time. Timing issues on the 500 were a problem within the sport until electronic clocks arrived in the 1960s; during the 1936 Olympic 500 metre race, it was suggested that Ivar Ballangrud's 500 metre time was almost a second too good. Finland won the remaining four gold medals at the 1924 Games, with Clas Thunberg winning 1,500 metres, 5,000 metres, and allround. It was the first and only time an allround Olympic gold medal has been awarded in speed skating.

Norwegian and Finnish skaters won all the gold medals in world championships between the world wars, with Latvians and Austrians visiting the podium in the European Championships. However, North American races were usually conducted packstyle, similar to the marathon races in the Netherlands, but the Olympic races were to be held over the four ISU-approved distances. The ISU approved the suggestion that the Speed skating at the 1932 Winter Olympics 1932 Olympic speed skating competitions should be held as packstyle races, and Americans won all four gold medals. Canada won five medals, all silver and bronze, while defending World Champion Clas Thunberg stayed at home, protesting against this form of racing. At the World Championships held immediately after the Games, without the American champions, Norwegian racers won all four distances and occupied the three top spots in the allround standings.

Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Japanese skating leaders protested to the USOC, condemning the manner of competition, and expressing the wish that mass start races were never to be held again at the Olympics. However, ISU adopted the short track speed skating branch, with mass start races on shorter tracks, in 1967, arranged international competitions from 1976, and brought them back to the Olympics in 1992.

North American professionals

Roller skating races also developed. These were professional from an early stage. Professional World Championships were arranged in North America between the competitors on that circuit. Later, roller derby leagues appeared, a professional contact sport which originally was a form of racing. FIRS World Championships of inline speed skating go back to the 1980s, but many world champions, such as Derek Parra and Chad Hedrick, have switched to ice in order to win Olympic medals.

Like roller skating, ice speed skating was also professional in North America. Oscar Mathisen, five-time ISU world champion and three-time European champion, renounced his amateur status in 1916 and travelled to America, where he won many races but was beaten by Bobby McLean of Chicagomarker, four time American champion, in one of the races. Chicago was a centre of ice speed skating in America, with the Chicago Tribune sponsored a competition called the Silver Skates from 1917 to 1974.

Women's competitions

In the 1930s, women began to be accepted in ISU speed skating competitions. Although women's races had been held in North America for some time, and competed at the 1932 Winter Olympics in a demonstration event, the ISU did not organise official competitions until 1936. However, Zofia Nehringowa set the first official world record in 1929. Women's speed skating was not very high profile; in Skøytesportens stjerner (Stars of the skating sport), a Norwegian work from 1971, no female skaters are mentioned on the book's nearly 200 pages, though they had by then competed for nearly 30 years. The women's long track speed skating was since dominated by East Germanymarker and later reunified Germanymarker, who have won 15 of 35 Olympic gold medals in women's long track since 1984.

In most other skating sports, women were accepted into competition at the same time, and they have been with the short trackers from the start of international competition in 1976. Their distances are usually shorter than the men's, but not in inline skating, where women skate the same program as the men in World Championships.

Technical developments

A skater in full body-covering suit.
Artificial ice entered the long track competitions with the 1960 Winter Olympics, and the competitions in 1956 on Lake Misurinamarker were the last Olympic competitions on natural ice. 1960 also saw the first Winter Olympic competitions for women. Lidia Skoblikova won two gold medals in 1960, and four in 1964.

The clap skate, a new type of skate which came into wide use in the 1990s.
More aerodynamic skating suits were also developed, with Swiss skater Franz Krienbühl (who finished 8th on the Olympic 10,000 m at the age of 46) at the front of development. After a while, national teams took over development of "body suits", which are also used in short track skating, though without headcover attached to the suit – short trackers wear helmets instead, as falls are more common in mass start races. Suits and indoor skating, as well as the clap skate, has helped to lower long track world records considerably; from 1971 to 2007, the average speed on the men's 1500 metres has been raised from 45 to 52 km/h. Similar speed increases are shown in the other distances.


After the 1972 season, European long track skaters founded a professional league, International Speedskating League, which included Ard Schenk, three-time Olympic gold medallist in 1972, as well as five Norwegians, four other Dutchmen, three Swedes, and a few other skaters. Jonny Nilsson, 1963 world champion and Olympic gold medallist, was the driving force behind the league, which folded in 1974 for economic reasons, and ISU also excluded tracks hosting professional races from future international championships. The ISU later organised its own World Cup circuit with monetary prizes, and full time professional teams developed in the Netherlands during the 1990s, which led them to a dominance on the men's side only challenged by Japanese 500 m racers and American inline skaters who changed to long tracks to win Olympic gold.

Short track enters the Olympics

Short track speed skaters racing through a curve.

In 1992, short track speed skating was accepted as an Olympic sport. Short track speed skating had little following in the long track speed skating countries of Europe, such as Norway, the Netherlands and the former Soviet Union, with none of these nations having won official medals (though the Netherlands won two gold medals when the sport was a demonstration event in 1988). The Norwegian publication Sportsboken spent ten pages detailing the long track speed skating events at the Albertville Games in 1992, but short track were not mentioned by word, though the results pages appeared in that section. South Korea has been the dominant nation in this sport, winning 17 Olympic gold medals, though there have also been American inline skaters switching to this, such as Allison Baver of USA.

Books about speed skating

  • Dianne Holum: The Complete Handbook of Speed Skating (1984), ISBN 0-89490-051-X
  • USOC: A Basic Guide to Speed Skating, Griffin Publishers - Torrance/Ca. (2002), ISBN 1-58000-087-8
  • Barry Publow: Speed on Skates, Human Kinetics Publishers - Champaign, Ill. (1999), ISBN 0-88011-721-4
  • Matthias Opatz: Taschenfibel Eisschnelllauf (Pocketguide Speedskating), Lotok Publ. - Stedten-upon-Ilm/GER (2005), ISBN 3-939088-00-5

See also

References and notes

  1. NBC's Olympics coverage
  2. Saga of Sigurd the Crusader and His Brothers Eystein and Olaf, 25th stanza: Mannjafnaðr með konungum.
  3. Tour and marathon skating,
  4. Olympiske vinterleker 1924–2006, Åge Dalby, Jan Greve, Per Jorsett, ISBN 8272861623, Akilles forlag 2006, pg. 29
  5. Wat is Langebaanschaatsen,
  6. A short history of world championships from
  7. Skøytesportens stjerner, Knut Bjørnsen and Per Jorsett, J. W. Cappelens forlag 1971, pg. 183
  8. Less orange during the uneven years, from, published 1 July 1999
  9. Turner, James, in collaboration with Zaidman, Michael (1997). The History of Roller Skating. National Museum of Roller Skating. ISBN 0-9658192-0-5.
  10. Roller Skating 3: Types of Competition, from, retrieved 25 December 2006
  11. World In-Line Skating Medalists - Men
  12. Ice Skating, The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago]
  13. Olympiske vinterleker 1924–2006, Åge Dalby, Jan Greve, Per Jorsett, ISBN 8272861623, Akilles forlag 2006, pg. 252
  14. Olympiske vinterleker 1924–2006, Åge Dalby, Jan Greve, Per Jorsett, ISBN 8272861623, Akilles forlag 2006, pg. 230
  15. Sportsboken 1992, Schibsted forlag, ISBN 8251614287

Further references

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