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WINTER OLYMPICS : CHAOS ON ICE : Short Track Speed Skating Demonstration Provides Plenty of Thrills, Spills

February 25, 1988|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

CALGARY, Canada — They wear helmets, gloves, knee pads and skates, and they travel in packs.

They need the skates to stay ahead of everybody else. When they are behind, they need the helmets, gloves and knee pads.

It's a short trip around a short track, this kind of speed skating, where the opponent is not a clock but the pack of skaters on the track next to you.

It's like roller derby on ice.

"No, it's like a track meet on ice," Bonnie Blair said.

She should know. Just as teammates Dan Jansen and Nick Thometz did, the United States' gold medal speed skating star began her career competing in the kind of short track events that are a demonstration sport at the Olympic games.

So far, short track racing has demonstrated more than anything else that if it is not only a winter sport, but also a fall sport, because these skaters tend not to remain upright for very long.

The sport of short track speed skating should have been invented in Great Falls, Mont. Short track skaters probably honeymoon in Niagara Falls. Each time they meet somewhere for a race, the accepted greeting may be this:

"Have a a nice trip?"

Consider the case of the 23-year-old men's 500-meter champion from Great Britain named O'Reilly.

When he was growing up in England, O'Reilly was a figure skater. They called him Wilfred. Then he changed to short track speed skating. Now, he's Willie.

Short track skating is scary, fast and it may be an Olympic sport in 1992. Great Britain team manager Archie Marshall hopes so.

"Never a dull moment," Marshall said.

O'Reilly won a qualifying heat even though he appeared to knock the guy next to him to the ice.

"He must have fallen," O'Reilly deadpanned. "After all, contact is not allowed. You can be DQd for hitting somebody."

In this sport, DQ means disqualified, not Dairy Queen. Had O'Reilly ever been DQd before?

"A fair amount," he said with a smile.

The standard Olympic-sized speed skating oval is 400 meters around. Two skaters race in pairs against a clock. It is civilized and predictable.

The short track is, well, short. The track is only 111.12 meters long, and since there are as many as five skaters racing around the track at the same time, it is not a place you want to go to be alone.

Short track racing is wildly unpredictable. Often it evolves into speed skating's version of the bump and run.

Andy Gable, 23, America's best short track speed skater, was eliminated in the first 500-meter heat when an Italian bumped him from behind and rode him into the ice.

"That's the way the Italians skate," Gable said. "They don't have a whole lot of regard for what the other skaters are doing.

"There are so many people out there and they're all grabbing, bumping and hitting each other. But that's part of the sport. The Olympic racing looks sissy by comparison."

The best short track racers have to be tough. When--not if--they lose their balance and hit the padded boards, the sound of person meeting pads is similar to that of cannon being fired.

Skate blades are curved to take the turns better. As each competitor rounds the turns, he touches the ice with his hand for balance.

There have been a number of technological advances in the sport. The skates are constructed with more of the surface of the blade on the ice. Uniforms are improved and the tracks are superior to the old ones.

Turns are now marked with the bottom of rubber plungers, like the ones you would use for plumbing problems. The plungers replaced hockey pucks, which wouldn't stay put.

But there is still only one way to win a race: Get across the finish line first. However, there are a lot of ways to lose one by disqualification.

They sound like a shopping list of mayhem. Deliberate contact or collision. Pushing. Skating within the track boundary. Intentional obstruction. Causing a skater to fall.

All of these are decided at the discretion of the referee, who watches one section of the track more than any other.

"Everything happens in the corners," Gable said.

Sometimes, though, it even happens at the finish line.

When O'Reilly set a world record in the 500-meter race, he raised his arms in triumph.

O'Reilly began his victory lap. Mario Vincent of Canada came up from behind to congratulate O'Reilly, but when Vincent grabbed him, they both fell to the ice and slammed into the padded wall.

"It's like Grand Prix racing," O'Reilly said.

And the captain has just turned on the seat belt sign.

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