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2006 Winter Olympics Preview: Speedskating (Short Track)
Ahn Hyun-Soo
Ahn Hyun-Soo is a legitimate medal contender in each of the four men's events in Torino.
The sketchy origins of short track speedskating date back over a century, with Canada widely recognized as the originator. These indoor event competitions remove the weather variables from the race and provide action-packed results.

In the 1988 Calgary Games, short track was a demonstration sport with what proved to be 10 very popular events. So popular that the International Olympic Committee added a men's 1000 meter, women's 500 meter and one relay race for each gender in the 1992 Albertville Games. Lillehammer in 1994 saw the addition of a men's 500 meter and a women's 1000 meter. The program expanded again in Salt Lake City to its current eight events with the addition of a men's and women's 1500-meter race.

The competition will take place in Torino's Palavela from February 12-25. The newly constructed Palavela is made up of two sections side by side and will host the figure skating and short track speed skating competitions and can hold up to approximately 6,600 spectators. The short track is skated on a 111.12-meter oval, roughly the size of a hockey rink.

The short track competition is one which requires not only speed, but strategy. It is an elimination event in which athletes race in packs and try to outskate fellow competitors within their heats. Eventually, the field is narrowed to a few finalists. The first one to cross the finish line is the winner. Time is secondary. In fact, Olympic and world records have been set in non-medal heats.

Individual competitions start with 32 skaters. Four skaters race at a time in a heat and the athletes skate counter-clockwise. The first two across the finish line advance to the next round. Sometimes more than two advance, depending on the number of heats and if there are any disqualifications.

Some of the events take place over two days, especially in the relays when eight teams are divided into two heats of four. The top two teams in each semifinal advance to the final. As in the Summer Games, there is no baton passed in speedskating. A legal exchange is executed by an obvious touch anywhere on the body and an ideal exchange transfers momentum smoothly from the moving skater to the skater just starting. The final exchange must begin with two laps to go and if the exchange is too late, the team is disqualified.

If a skater falls during the race, a teammate can take over as long as the skaters touch. Teams don't have to use the same skaters in the final that they use in the semifinal. There are actually five athletes on a relay team instead of four, allowing room for substitution in the final.

TOP CONTENDERS AND CURRENT CHAMPIONS

South Korea's Ahn Hyun-Soo is a legitimate medal contender in each of the four men's events in Torino. The current 1500-meter and 3000-meter world record holder could become the first short track skater to win four medals at a single Games. The three-time world champion seeks to improve upon his poor Salt Lake City showing where he was involved in a four-skater crash in the 1000 meter final and was disqualified in the 1500 meter semifinal.

Fellow South Korean Lee Ho-Suk is nicknamed "Little Ahn" and finished second (behind teammate Ahn Hyun-Soo) in the overall World Cup standings.

China's Li Jiajun took silver in the men's 1500 meter in the Salt Lake City Games and took bronze in the men's 5000 meter relay event to earn his fourth career Olympic medal. Li was only the second Chinese man in history to win a Winter Olympic medal in an individual event, with the first being short-track skater An Yulong, who won the 500-meter bronze in 1998.

On the women's side, China is just as strong with medal hopefuls Yang Yang (A), Wang Meng, and Fu Tianyu.

Yang Yang (A) won China's first ever Winter Olympic gold medal at the 2002 Games. The four-time overall World Cup champion won gold in the 500 meter and 1000 meter, as well as, silver in the 3000 meter relay. Yang made her Olympic debut at the 1998 Nagano Games, earning silver in the relay.

Wang Meng will make her Olympic debut in Torino and is considered the world's most consistent female short track speedskater. She has won a medal in seven- of-eight Olympic events at the last two world championships, and also won the 2004-05 women's overall World Cup title.

Fu Tianyu enters her first Olympics as a medal contender in the 500 meter and 3000 meter relay.

Two-time Olympian Choi Eun-Kyung of South Korea won silver (1500 meter) and gold medals (3000-meter relay) at the 2002 Games and will give the Chinese women a strong competitor on the ice.

UNITED STATES/CANADIAN OUTLOOK

The United States and Canada each have strong competitors in the field and are certain to challenge for multiple podium opportunities.

The heart and "soul" of the American men's team is Apolo Anton Ohno. His long hair, bandana and soul patch set the tone at Salt Lake City where he won gold in the 1500 meter and silver in the 1000 meter.

Since then, Ohno won four of the six 2004-05 World Cup events to grab his third overall title, earned his seventh national crown and won the 1000 meter and non-Olympic 3000 meter titles. He believes he is primed for competition in Torino.

"I'm more experienced in the past four years," Ohno stated. "It is going to be on foreign soil, so a lot of things are going to be different, but I'm looking forward to it."

Ohno has been living at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs and he says that instant access has helped him progress faster for the Torino Games.

"I think I'm better all around as a skater," Ohno said. "Physically, I think I'm definitely stronger. I'm lighter, I'm leaner, I know a lot more about my body."

Besides Ohno, the only other American man to have earned an individual Olympic medal in short track is Rusty Smith who took bronze in the men's 500 meter at Salt Lake City. A two-time Olympian, Smith is also the American record holder in the 1000 meter and personally making the most of his opportunities.

"I'm enjoying myself more now than I ever have in my life. I think it's a hard thing to continue to comeback and do it," explained Smith. "Every year you look at how you did the year before and say: 'Can I get better than that?', 'Can I do better than that?', 'Is there something more to my career than that?' It's always fun to try one-up every year. Try go a little faster, try and do a little better each time. That's the fun part of it."

The U.S men's team also includes: Alex Izykowski, J.P. Kepka and Anthony Lobello.

Francois-Louis Tremblay was part of the Canadian gold-medal winning relay team at the 2002 Games. The pressure to continue winning after capturing an Olympic gold got to Tremblay and he struggled after Salt Lake City. However, by 2005 Tremblay won gold in the 500 meter and relay, and a silver in the 1500 meter, ranking third in the overall standings at the 2005 World Championships.

Fellow-Canadian Mathieu Turcotte is seeking to add to his pair of 2002 Salt Lake medals (bronze in the 1000 meter and gold in the relay). He enters the 2006 Games coming off a successful 2004-05 World Cup season. Turcotte won the 500 meter title and was second in the overall rankings. The Canadian was also part of Canada's gold-medal relay team at the 2005 World Championships, which netted him his fourth 5000-meter relay world title.

Jonathan Guilmette of Canada looks to improve upon his 2002 silver medal performance in the men's 500 meter, and to help defend Canada's gold in the men's 5000-meter relay.

Charles Hamelin is the lone Olympic rookie on the Canadian men's team. He won two medals at the 2005 World Championships, taking silver in the 500 meter and gold in the 5000-meter relay. His first full World Cup season was in 2004-05, when he ranked fifth in the overall standings.

Over the last several years, Allison Baver has become one of America's best female short-track skaters. She earned four bronze medals (500 meter, 1500 meter, 3000 meter and overall) at the 2004 U.S. Short Track Championships, and is the American women's record holder in the 1000 meter.

Five-time Olympian and nine-time U.S. short track champion Amy Peterson failed in her bid to make the U.S. team and add to her three past Olympic medals.

However, making her first Olympic appearance, Hyo-Jung "Halie" Kim erupted onto the American short track scene in 2004-05. She won every women's event at the 2005 U.S. Short Track Championships to qualify for her first senior world championships. Even though she didn't reach a final at Worlds, Kim was seventh in the overall 2004-05 World Cup standings, just one place behind teammate Allison Baver. Kim's parents are both South Korean natives.

The American women's team also includes: Kimberly Derrick, Maria Garcia and Caroline Hallisey.

Canada's Alanna Kraus is seeking her second Olympic medal. The 2002 Olympian and Calgary resident competed in every women's event in Salt Lake City and earned the bronze medal in the 3000-meter relay. Kraus was fifth in the 1500 meter and was eliminated in the semifinals of the 500 meter and 1000 meter.

Kraus has been improving since the Salt Lake Games, and in 2005 she won her first World Championship title with a gold in the 3000-meter relay. She is Canada's only female Olympic short track skater that trains in Calgary, with the rest of the women's team training in Montreal, leaving her to train with all men. A situation that she believes makes her faster.

- Rob Dougherty, Managing Web Editor

 
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