Speed ​​skating one of Beijing Winter Olympics’ most beautiful sporting spectacles — and a playground for the Dutch

There is something wonderfully peaceful about ice skating, even at a competitive level.

As the skaters glide around the 400-meter-long track, the gentle clinking of blade on ice is closer to the sound of cutlery on your nan’s finest china, something more associated with a posh dinner party then Winter Olympic event.

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Three skaters wearing skin-tight bodysuits and bicycle helmets follow each other, nose-to-tail, with the rearmost two skaters resting one arm on the hip of the skater in front of them, following their every move as they speed around the oval.

This is the team pursuit speed skating at the brand-new National Speed ​​Skating Oval, colloquially known as the Ice Ribbon.

Teams start on opposite sides of the ice and use their respective leader’s slipstream to go faster although, unlike their cycling brethren in a velodrome, the skaters are less likely to switch their order over the course of the race – with pushing from behind more efficient than giving the leader a break in the relatively short race — six laps for the women and eight for the men.

Team speed skaters rest their arms on the hip of the skater in front to achieve maximum speed over the ice. (Getty Images / ANP: Vincent Jannink)

However, the Dutch women’s team did it to help them win bronze, with Marijke Groenewoud, Irene Schouten and Ireen Wust switching places to beat the ROC.

The gentle sounds that accompany the race throughout its duration are punctuated by the coaches shouting encouragement from the sidelines and the occasional ripple of excitement in the otherwise staid crowd which is spread out on the far side of the arena.

The start is harsher too, a rhythmic scraping to go with the clicking of the spring-loaded blades clapping back up with each stride as skaters on both sides of the ice get up to speed.

Immediately before the start, the skaters kick down onto the ice, using their blades to create a divot from which they can push off from.

Doing so is almost an affront to the pristine, glass-like surface that is frequently re-surfaced by huge carts that smooth out any scrapes and divots, aided by officials spraying water at offending areas.

The only interruption to the precise way in which the skaters manoeuvre around the ice, gliding down the straights and walking around the corners, is the occasional squeak, betraying brief slides of the blades.

Beyond that, the sport is a picture of athletic artist.

Racing in a line, the three members of each team skate, bent over and leaning forwards, their arms either behind their backs or rhythmically moving in time with their strides.

South Koreas speed skaters in the foreground skate away from Canadians, blurry in the background.
The combination of grace, power and speed across the ice makes speed skating’s team event an athletic, artistic pursuit. (AP: Ashley Landis)

Each rider synchronises their movements beautifully, gliding down the track with an illusion of ease that is only ruined by the grimaces on their faces and their exhausted reactions to crossing the finish line.

Organisers of these Olympics have been at great pains to ensure the Games are as green as possible, and they’ve backed that up by using new “green” technology to refrigerate the ice at the National Speed ​​Skating Oval.

Mark Messer, the ice technician in Beijing, described the use of carbon dioxide as opposed to ammonia as a refrigerant as “a game-changer”.

“It used to be only [possible] to use this equipment on an industrial scale, but it’s coming down to a size where it can be used in hockey rinks, so it’s a great advancement.”

So how does it work?

“We compress CO2, we store it and then we circulate the gas through pipes in the floor. The expansion of that gas takes the heat out of the floor and makes it cold enough to form the ice.”

If it looks anything to go by, it’s clearly working.

Three fe,male Dutch speed skaters race down the icy straight to the finish with arms flailing during a pursuit event.
The finish of the team pursuit sees skaters abandon their smooth lines in search of the fastest way to the line.(Getty Images: Richard Heathcote)

The same goes for speed — in eight of the 10 events so far, the Olympic Record has been broken. In one of the others, the men’s 10,000m, the world record fell.

Olympic records also fell in the team pursuit semifinals, with the ROC needing that sort of pace to see off the USA.

The team pursuit is a relatively new event, having only appeared at the Olympic Games since 2006, but speed skating has been an ever-present since the first Winter Games in 1924. And pretty much from the start, the Dutch have made winning an art form.

Of the 569 medals awarded in Olympic speed skating prior to Beijing, the Dutch won 121 of them, including 42 golds — more than twice the number of any other nation.

The Dutch have, in fact, won the most or equal-most number of medals in the sport at each of the last six Games.

Canadian speed skaters smile and breathe in as they wave the Canadian flag in celebration of a gold medal.
Canada was able to celebrate at the Ice Ribbon after winning the women’s team pursuit event in speed skating. (AP: Ashley Landis)

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At this Games they’ve continued that dominance, with wins for Irene Schouten (in the 3,000m and 5,000m), the incomparable Ireen Wust (1,500m) and Kjeld Nuis (1,500m, part of a 1-2 with Thomas Krol) Maintaining the status quo and ensuring the Oranje keeps its golden glow.

Swede Nils van der Poel, who twice relegated Dutchman Patrick Roest to silver in the 5,000m and 10,000m races, Erin Jackson and home skater Gao Tingyu are the only athletes to halt the Dutch bandwagon thus far.

Canada, though, won a thrilling team pursuit gold medal race in another Olympic record-breaking performance after Japan’s third skater, Nana Takagi, crashed out in the penultimate corner.

In the men’s event, the Dutch were beaten by the USA in the race for the bronze medal, with Norway winning gold by beating the ROC, who had set an Olympic record to beat the USA in the semi-final.

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