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Short track 101: Competition format

Women's short track at the 2014 Sochi Olympics
USA TODAY Sports

Short track 101: Competition format

Events

Eight events, four for men and four for women, are contested at the Olympics. The events are: 

Men's:                   

  • 500m  
  • 1000m           
  • 1500m           
  • 5000m relay

Women's:

  • 500m
  • 1000m
  • 1500m
  • 3000m relay

When short track made its official Olympic debut at the 1992 Albertville Games, only four events were contested: the men's 1000m and 5000m relay and the women's 500m and 3000m relay. The men's 500m and women's 1000m were added two years later in Lillehammer, and the program was expanded again in 2002 when the men's and women's 1500m races were contested in Salt Lake City. At most international short track competitions, ten events are contested: the eight included on the Olympic program plus the men's and women's 3000m. 

About the events

The 500m is an all-out sprint; a good start is critical. 

In the 1000m, tactics are increasingly important. 

The 1500m requires great stamina and strategy, since the heats, quarterfinals, semis and the final will be contested in a single day and each race is almost a mile. 

The relay consists of teams of four skaters, each of whom take the ice for 1½ to 2 laps and take more than one turn on the ice. The extras stay in the middle of the oval until ready to skate. Exchanges involve a firm push from behind in order to transfer momentum from one skater to the next.

Laps per event:

500m

 4½  laps
1000m 9 laps
1500m 13½ laps 

3000m relay
(women only)       

27 laps
5000m relay
(men only)
45 laps
 

Short track oval

Short track competition takes place on a 111.12-meter oval (about one-fourth the size of a regular speed skating track), laid out on an indoor rink that is 60 meters long by 30 meters wide (approximately 196 feet long by 98 feet wide). There are no lanes. Only the turns are delineated (with seven markers per turn).

Competition format    

Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded to the top three finishers, respectively, in each A final. 

Although short track is timed to the thousandth of a second – making it, along with luge, one of the most precisely timed events at the Winter Games – time is secondary to placement. In fact, Olympic and world records have been set in non-medal heats or the B final. 

Individual Events

Individual competitions begin with 32 athletes in the 500m and 1000m, and 36 athletes in the 1500m, skating up to six at a time from a mass (simultaneous) start. Athletes travel counter-clockwise and the first two (or three in the case of the 1500m) across the finish line advance to the next round. Depending on the nature of any disqualifications, sometimes more than the standard number advance.

The 500m and 1000m events have identical formats. There are 16 races in all. In the end, the medalists will have skated four races:

First round: Eight heats of four skaters each. Two skaters from each heat (a total of 16) advance. 

Quarterfinals: Four races of four skaters each. Two skaters from each heat (a total of eight) advance. 

Semifinals: Two races of four skaters. First- and second-place skaters from each race (a total of four) advance to the A final to vie for medals. Third- and fourth- place skaters from each race (a total of four) advance to the B final to determine placement.

A or B final: The A final is one race of four skaters to decide places one through four. The B final is one race of four skaters to decide places five through eight. 

The 1500m event has a unique format that eliminates the need for quarterfinals. There are 11 races in all. In the end, the medalists will have skated three races. Here’s how it works:

First round: Six heats (six skaters per heat). Three skaters from each heat (a total of 18) advance.

Semifinals: Three races of six skaters. First- and second-place skaters from each race (a total of six) advance to the A final to vie for medals. Third- and fourth-place skaters from each race (a total of six) advance to the B final to determine placement.

A or B final: The A final is one race of six skaters to decide places one through six. The B final is one race of six skaters to decide places seven through 12. 

In any of the events, it is possible for someone from the B final to win a medal, if enough people from the A final are disqualified. For instance, in a 500m final, if two of the four A finalists are disqualified, the winner of the B final would receive the third-place ranking and the bronze medal. Disqualified skaters are not ranked.

Relays

The relay is a two-day competition featuring eight teams from eight different nations. Each team consists of four skaters. The total women’s distance is 3000m; the total men’s distance is 5000m. Each team contests two races, a semifinal and a final. The format is as follows: 

First round (semifinal): Two races with four teams per race. Each team can be composed of any four of the five skaters originally named. Each of the four team members must take part in the race. A competitor may be relayed at any time except during the last two laps. These laps must be skated by one skater except in the case of a fall. The fastest two teams from each race advance to the A final to vie for medals. Third- and fourth-place teams will contest the B final to determine placement. 

A final: One race of four teams will determine places one through four. 

B final: One race of four teams will determine places five through eight.

In the relay, skaters contest 1½ to 2 laps apiece and take multiple turns on the ice. Each of the four skaters on a team must skate at least once. The number of laps each athlete takes is up to the team. The only requirement is that the same person take the last two laps. (If the final skater falls, he may be relayed.) 

Changeovers are performed at high speeds and are generally done on the straightaways. A legal exchange is executed by an obvious touch anywhere on the body. The ideal exchange transfers momentum smoothly from the moving skater to the skater just starting. The final exchange must begin in an area before the finish line (with two laps to go). If the exchange begins too late, the team is disqualified. If the incoming skater isn’t going to make it in time, the penultimate skater must finish the race. If a racer falls in the relay, a teammate can take over as long as the skaters touch. Teams don’t have to use the same skaters in the final as they use in the semifinal. The relay rosters actually consist of five athletes per team, allowing room for substitution in the final.

Start Order and Groupings

500m, 1000m and 1500m

Although there are no lane markers in short track, the skaters must line up at the start according to a number selected at random just before they take the ice. Skater No. 1 takes the innermost position (closest to the infield) and the rest work their way outward in numeric order. In the 500m and 1000m, the best start numbers are 1 and 2 because it’s easier to get to the first turn with slightly less traffic.

To determine who skates in each heat, officials rely on skaters’ World Cup rankings for the current season in each distance. As skaters are eliminated, those who advance are re-ranked in the same order of their World Cup placement. 

If skaters from the same country fall into the same heat before the final, the competitors’ steward has the authority to shift people to prevent this from occurring. Since the International Skating Union (ISU) appoints the competitor’s steward, he/she is supposed to be unbiased.

Relay

To determine the composition of each relay semifinal, officials use World Cup rankings from the 2017-18 season. Group one consists of teams with odd-numbered rankings. Group two consists of the even-numbered rankings.

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