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2006 Winter Olympics Preview: Speedskating (Long Track)
Joji Kato
Japan's Joji Kato is the current 500 meter men's record holder.
The Netherlands is considered the birthplace of speedskating and it has been an integral part of the Winter Olympic Games since they began in 1924. Although it was originally just a men's competition, women have made an impact on the scene since the 1960 Winter Games held in Squaw Valley, CA.

There are 12 long track events, six each for men and women. Both genders will compete in the: Team Pursuit, 500-meter, 1,000-meter, 1,500-meter and 5,000- meter races. The women will engage in a 3,000-meter event, while the men endure a 10,000-meter skating marathon.

The competition will take place in Torino's Oval Lingotto from February 11-25. The Oval is a new multipurpose covered structure adjacent to the Olympic Village and can hold up to approximately 8,500 spectators.

The long track is skated on a 400-meter oval, where skaters compete in pairs against the clock. They compete against everyone entered, not just against the other skater in their race. Skaters alternate skating the outside curve and the inside curve.

New in 2006 is the Team Pursuit event. According to the official Olympic site, two teams made up of three athletes start at the same time from two different sides of the track and each of the team members faces the bends by "leading" or guiding the team in turns. The skaters who are not pulling follow closely behind the leader to take advantage of the air currents and the team completes the race when the third athlete crosses the finish line. The competition is composed of elimination rounds leading up to the final, with men skating eight laps and women skating six.

The 500-meters is the only Olympic event in this category in which the skaters skate in two races with the combined time used for the final results. This is an all-out sprint event with the skaters beginning with an even start and consists of one and a quarter laps around the oval, finishing at the end of the straight.

The 1000-meter to 5000-meter races all begin with staggered starts and each progressively requires more endurance. However, the 10,000 meters is the true test of endurance. The men's-only event begins with a pair of skaters lined up side-by-side and the marathon consists of 25 laps around the oval.

TOP CONTENDERS AND CURRENT CHAMPIONS

To much of the speedskating world's surprise, the dynamic Dutch duo of Jochem Uytdehaage and Gerard Van Velde did not qualify for Torino to defend their gold medals from 2002. In Salt Lake City, Uytdehaage set the then-world record in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meter men's events, and Van Velde set the then- world record in the 1,000 meter.

However, the Dutch men will send Carl Verheijen who for a short time last December held the 10,000-meter world record before American Chad Hedrick broke it on New Year's Eve.

Hedrick had a spectacular 2005 as he: Set the world record in the 1,500 meter on November 18th; Set the record in the 3,000 meter on March 10th (only to be bested by Norway's Eskil Ervik on November 5th); Set the record in the 5,000 meter on November 13th (only to be bested by the Netherlands' Sven Kramer on November 19th); and set the aforementioned record in the 10,000 meter.

Japan's Joji Kato is the current 500 meter men's record holder. The 20-year- old Kato, along with veteran Hiroyasu Shimizu, give Japan a strong 1-2 sprint combination.

American Shani Davis is the current 1,000 meter men's record holder, however he failed to qualify for Torino and lost his bid to become the first black athlete to win an Olympic speedskating gold medal.

The women's 500-meter world record, set by Canadian Catriona LeMay Doan in September 2001, withstood the Salt Lake City Games, but can it stand in Torino? Germany's Jenny Wolf, Russia's Svetlana Zhuriva, the Netherlands' Sanne Van der Star, and American Chris Witty will each try to surpass Doan's mark.

Witty still holds the world record in the 1,000 meter that she set in Salt Lake City. Canadian Cindy Klassen is the current world record holder in the women's 1,500 and 3,000 meter events, setting both last November. She'll face stiff competition from Germany's Anni Friesinger and American Jennifer Rodriguez.

Current 3000-meter world record holder Claudia Pechstein of Germany is aiming to become the first speedskater to win four Olympic gold medals in the same distance. She is currently tied with American Bonnie Blair (500 meter in 1988, 1992 and 1994) for three consecutive Games.

The Netherlands, United States, Norway and Italy are expected to be in contention for the men's gold in the Team Pursuit event, while Germany, Japan and Canada have been the top nations in the women's field.

UNITED STATES/CANADIAN OUTLOOK

All six American long track medalists from the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games will be returning to the Games in Torino. Making her fifth Olympic appearance (four Winter Games and the 2000 Summer Games), Chris Witty leads the contingent on the long track for the United States. She was only the ninth American athlete to compete in both the Winter and Summer Games.

Only one American, Eddie Eagan, has won medals in a Summer and Winter Olympics. He won a boxing gold in 1920 and a bobsled gold in 1932. He is also the only person to win gold medals in the Summer and Winter Games.

The 30-year-old Witty heads into these Games defending her 1,000-meter gold medal and will also compete in the 500-meter and 1,500-meter women's races.

On the U.S. Men's side, Kip Carpenter looks to improve upon his bronze medal finish at Salt Lake City in the 500 meter. Casey FitzRandolph is set to defend his gold medal in the 500 meter and also qualified for the 1,000 meter. Joey Cheeks qualified for the 500-meter, 1,000-meter and 1,500-meter events and will aim to improve upon his bronze medal placing four years ago in the 1,000 meter.

After taking gold in the 1,500 meter and silver in the 5,000 meter four years ago, three-time Olympian Derek Parra will only be competing in the 1,500 meter in Torino.

Besides Witty, the only American long track speedskating woman to medal in the Salt Lake City Games was Jennifer Rodriguez. Rodriguez took bronze in both the 1,000-meter and 1,500 meter. She will attempt to medal again, as she has qualified for each of these events, as well as, the 500 meter.

After impressive showings on the World Cup circuit, the Canadian's believe they have a solid team for the Games.

"Heading into Turin our athletes are legitimate medals contenders for five to seven medals," stated Emery Holmik, high performance director for Speed Skating Canada, in a CBC interview earlier this month. "That puts us on pace to achieve or surpass our best-ever medal total in long track at the Games."

Fifty-six percent of Canada's medals won over the past two Winter Games (18 out of 32) have come from the long and short-track speedskaters.

Kristina Groves will compete in five long-track events in Torino. The 29-year- old Groves will skate in the: 1,000-meter, 1,500-meter, 3,000-meter, 5,000- meter and pursuit.

There are high expectations for Cindy Klassen and Clara Hughes, as well as, for sprinter Jeremy Wotherspoon.

- Rob Dougherty, Managing Web Editor

 
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