What’s the Difference Between Long-Track and Short-Track Speedskating?

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Followers of the Olympics have probably noticed that many of the event categories are divided into subcategories with no crossover between them. For example, skiing has alpine and cross-country events, with both being clearly different from one another in some big ways, and snowboarding similarly has no crossover between the trick-focused halfpipe events and the time-oriented slalom and snowboard cross events.

Speedskating is no different. For example, if you look at the American speedskating team, the 2010 Winter Olympics had two bona fide superstars in Apolo Ohno and Shani Davis, but these two skaters performed in completely different events and may as well have been on opposite sides of the world.

Of course, there’s an easy explanation for this: The reason that Ohno and Davis weren’t seen competing together is that Ohno is a short-track speedskater and Davis is a long-track speedskater. The two sports may seem the same in a lot of ways, but they’re actually quite different in some important respects.

Long track speedskating is a little bit simpler. The athletes basically race to see who can go a set distance in the fastest time. And as the name indicates, this takes place on a large track that is similar in size and proportion to the types of running tracks used in track and field. Also important to note is the fact that long-track speed skaters race in separate lanes, never coming into contact with one other (expect when there’s an accident—which usually doesn’t turn out well).

Short-track speed skating takes place on a much smaller course. In contrast to the 400-meter course of long-track skating, the standard short track is 111.12 meters in circumference, and the rink itself is approximately the same size as a professional-class hockey rink. In short-track skating, the skaters start out in separate lanes but once the race gets started there are no lanes. There are rules governing how much contact skaters can make with one another, but needless to say, a lot of jostling goes on, and things can get quite heated.

In practice, the two sports are far from similar. Long-track speedskating is smooth and graceful, with an emphasis on training and endurance. Short-track skating, in contrast, is rougher and more competitive. The skaters have to be well-trained, but a little bit of wile goes a long way, and the bolder, more tactical skaters tend to get the upper hand.

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