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Speed skating 101: Origins and Olympic history

Dan Jansen
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Speed skating 101: Origins and Olympic history

From Swedish bone skates in 700s to the competition at the 2014 Sochi Olympics

Origins of speed skating

The history of skating goes back over 1,000 years to when people in Scandinavia and the Netherlands used bone skates to cross frozen rivers and lakes. Bone skates were made from the polished shank or rib bones of animals, which were then strapped to boots made of animal skins.

In the 14th century, the bone blades were upgraded to highly waxed wooden runners, and in the late 16th century, iron blades, easier and cheaper to manufacture, were introduced. Mass production increased skating’s accessibility and popularity, and soon the two distinct disciplines of figure skating and speed skating developed. Speed skating continued to spread from Scandinavia and the Netherlands across Northern Europe. The first known speed skating club was the Skating Club of Edinburgh, in Scotland, and the first speed skating competition is thought to be a 15-mile race held on the Fens in England on February 4, 1793. The first United States speed skating club was established in Philadelphia in 1849, with skaters using the Schuylkill River.

In 1850, Philadelphia’s own E.W. Bushnell made a huge breakthrough — the first pair of all-steel skates. The blades were light and strong and did not require the frequent sharpening that the iron runners had. His innovation brought about the emergence of skating as a competitive sport.

The first official long track speed skating events took place in 1863, in Oslo, Norway, and the first world championships were held in the Netherlands in 1889. Three years later, the International Skating Union (ISU) was founded in the Netherlands, in Scheveningen (SKAY-vuh-ning-uh). Today, the organization is located in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Olympic history

Speed skating is one of six sports to appear in every Olympic Winter Games, from the inaugural Winter Games in 1924 to the 2018 Winter Olympics  in PyeongChang. The men’s 500m, 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m events have all been on the Olympic program since the 1924 Chamonix Games. Women’s events were added in 1960, and the team pursuit event debuted on the Olympic program in 2006.

1924 Chamonix

The first medal awarded in Olympic Winter Games history went to U.S. speedskater Charles Jewtraw. He won the men’s 500m in 44.0 seconds on January 26, 1924. He later donated his gold medal to the Smithsonian Institution.

Speed skaters were the only athletes to win multiple medals at the first Olympic Winter Games. Clas Thunberg of Finland won five medals (three gold, one silver, one bronze), Norway’s Roald Larsen also won five (two silver, three bronze) and Finland’s Julius Skutnabb won three medals (one gold, one silver, one bronze).

1928 St. Moritz

Clas Thunberg of Finland added to his five-medal haul from Chamonix with two more gold medals, in the 500m and 1500m races, in St. Moritz.

1932 Lake Placid

A major speed skating controversy erupted in 1932 when organizers decided to stage the Olympic races using “North American Rules,” in which up to six skaters raced in each heat, similar to contemporary short track. The traditional speed skating rules has two skaters racing against the clock in each heat.

In disgust, Finland’s Clas Thunberg, who had won seven medals at the previous two Winter Olympics, refused to participate. Speed skaters from North America dominated the competition, winning 10 out of 12 possible medals.

1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Norway’s Ivar Ballangrud nearly swept the gold medals, winning the 500m, 5000m and 10,000m races but finishing second in the 1500m. Ballangrud, who won seven career Olympic medals over three Winter Games, was the most successful athlete in any sport in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. 

1948 St. Moritz       

Sweden’s Ake Seyffarth, the world record holder in the 5000m, finished seventh after a French photographer jumped onto the ice to take a photo during Seyffarth’s final lap. The gold and silver medalists, Reidar Liaklev and Odd Lundberg, were both born and raised in the same small village in Norway.

1952 Oslo

Norway’s Hjalmar Andersen claimed gold in the 10,000 meters by nearly 25 seconds. His margin of victory is the largest in Olympic speed skating history. Andersen, so famously cheerful he was nicknamed King Glad, also won gold in the 1500m and 5000m races

1956 Cortina

The Soviet Union’s Yevgeny Grishin tied for gold in the 1500m at both the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. Grishin won the 500m race outright twice, also in 1956 and 1960.

1960 Squaw Valley

Women’s speed skating was first contested at the 1960 Winter Olympics. Jeanne Ashworth was the first American woman to win a speed skating medal; she won bronze in the 500m in Squaw Valley. In that same event, Germany’s Helga Haase won the first women’s speed skating gold.

1964 Innsbruck

At the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics, Lydia Skoblikova of the Soviet Union won all four women’s speed skating events on the program: 500m, 1000m, 1500m and 3000m. No other female speed skater has ever won four golds at a single Games. She also won 1500m and 3000m golds in 1960; her six career gold medals are the most of any speed skater in Olympic history.

1968 Grenoble

The Netherlands’ Carolina Geijssen, a 21-year-old secretary who skated to work every day, became the first Dutch speed skater to win Olympic gold when she finished first in the 1000m. The second and third Dutch speed skating champions, Kees Verkerk in the men’s 1500m and Ans Schut in the women’s 3000m, followed just days later.

The Netherlands now holds the record for most Olympic gold medals won in speed skating with 35, and most total Olympic speed skating medals with 105.

1972 Sapporo

Electric timing, which allowed officials to record finish times to the hundredth of the second, was used for the first time at the Sapporo Winter Olympics. Led by Ard Schenk, who won three golds, the Dutch topped the medal count with nine total medals. 

1976 Innsbruck

The men’s speed skating program was expanded in 1976 when the 1000m race debuted. The winner was Peter Mueller of the U.S., who later became the coach of speed skating stars Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen. 

Another notable gold medalist was Sheila Young, who finished first in the 500m, second in the 1500m and third in the 1000m. She became the first U.S. athlete to win three medals at a single Winter Olympics.

1980 Lake Placid

Eric Heiden became an Olympic legend in Lake Placid when he swept the men’s speed skating events and became the first person in Olympic history to win five individual gold medals in one Games. He is still the most successful Winter Olympian in a single Games.

1984 Sarajevo

East German speed skaters dominated the women’s events, taking four golds, four silvers and a bronze—nine out of 12 available medals. Karin Enke won a medal in all four women’s events, claiming golds in the 1000m and 1500m and silvers in the 500m and 3000m.

1988 Calgary

In 1988, East Germany’s Christa Rothenburger-Luding became the only athlete to win Winter and Summer Olympic medals in the same year. She won a gold medal in the 1000m speed skating event in at the Calgary Winter Olympics, and later that year, she won a silver in cycling’s sprint event at the Seoul Summer Olympics.

A new race, the women’s 5000m, was added to the Olympic program in 1988. The Netherlands’ Yvonne van Gennip won the inaugural gold, and also picked up Olympic titles in the 1500m and 3000m events. 

1992 Albertville

Four years after winning 500m gold and 1000m bronze in Calgary, U.S. skater Bonnie Blair added two more Olympic golds to her collection. Blair became the first U.S. woman to win a gold medal in two different Olympics and the first U.S. woman to win three Winter Olympic golds. She dedicated her Olympic performance to her father, who had died in 1989. Almost fifty family members and friends came to Albertville to cheer her on.

1994 Lillehamer

Dan Jansen’s tragic and disappointing Olympic career finally had a happy ending in Lillehammer. In 1988, Jansen was the reigning World Sprint Champion and a favorite for gold in the 500m. But hours before the race, Jansen learned that his sister, Jane, had died of leukemia. He raced anyway, but slipped and fell in the first turn. A few days later, he fell a second time in the 1000m.

At the 1992 Olympics, Jansen was the world record holder in the 500m and again a gold-medal favorite. But his cautious approach to the race left him off the podium in fourth place.   

Jansen triumphed in Lillehammer, his fourth Olympics, when he skated a world record time in the 1000m to finish first. After receiving the gold medal, Jansen skated a victory lap with his 8-month-old daughter, named Jane after his sister.

On the woman’s side, Bonnie Blair became the first speed skater to win the same event at three consecutive Olympics when she claimed her third gold in the 500m. She also won her second 1000m gold in Lillehammer.

1998 Nagano

The clap skate made its Olympic debut at the 1998 Nagano Games and propelled skaters to world records in five events. In the 1500m, 16 of the 32 athletes raced personal best times, and the world record was broken three times.

Unlike conventional skates, the heel of the blade on a clap skate is not attached to the boot, and the toe of the blade is affixed to the boot with a hinged apparatus. At the end of each stride, as the skater picks up her foot, the blade briefly disconnects from the heel of the boot, thereby keeping the blade on the ice longer and increasing the skater’s pushing power.

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2002 Salt Lake City

The speed skating competition was held at the Utah Olympic Oval, which is known as the “Fastest Ice on Earth.” Located at high altitude, the rink’s air is thinner and offers less resistance to racers. Olympic records were broken in all 10 events in Salt Lake, with world records broken in eight events.

One notable medalist was Germany’s Claudia Pechstein, who won the 5000m Olympic title for the third consecutive Games. She also took gold in the 3000m, and set world records in both. In 2006, Pechstein would win her ninth Olympic medal and fifth gold when the Germans claimed the team pursuit title in Torino. Pechstein continued her career, and turned 42 years old while competing in the 2014 Sochi Games, her sixth Olympics. 

2006 Torino

Italy had never won an Olympic medal in speed skating prior to hosting the 2006 Games. Enrico Fabris changed that when he won gold in the 1500m and bronze in the 5000m on home ice. Fabris also led Team Italy to the gold in the team pursuit event, which was added to the Olympic program for the Torino Games. The Germans won the women’s team pursuit event.

The U.S. men had a strong showing, winning at least one medal in all five individual events. Joey Cheek won gold in the 500m and silver in the 1000m, and was chosen to carry the U.S. flag into the Closing Ceremony. Cheek shared the 1000m podium with Shani Davis, who won gold as well as 1500m silver. The most decorated U.S. speed skater in Torino was Chad Hedrick, a former inline skater who switched to speed skating after watching the 2002 Olympics. He won a gold in the 5000m, silver in 10,000m and bronze in 1500m.

2010 Vancouver

No world records were broken in Vancouver, where the rink was located at sea level with humid air. But Latvia’s Haralds Silovs turned in a history-making performance when he became the first athlete to compete in both long and short track speed skating at the same Olympics. On Feb. 13th, Silovs raced in the long track 5000m event before driving to the short track rink to compete in the 1500m qualifier, and also became the first Olympic athlete to compete in two different disciplines on the same day.

The most successful speed skater in Vancouver was Martina Sablikova, who claimed two golds and a bronze. She became the first Czech speed skater to win an Olympic medal and the first Czech athlete to win two golds in the same Winter Olympics. She picked up two more medals in Sochi, repeating her victory in the 5000m and taking silver in the 3000m.

The Canadian hosts earned five total medals, with golds coming for the Canadian men in the team pursuit and Christine Nesbitt in the 1000m.

The Dutch won the medal count, although star Sven Kramer didn’t win the three golds he was favored to. Kramer started the Games by breaking the Olympic record to win gold in the 5000m. But in his next race, the 10,000m, Kramer was disqualified after his coach shouted out incorrect instructions and Kramer failed to make a required lane change. Kramer and the Dutch men ended the Games with a bronze medal in the team pursuit.

Shani Davis followed up his breakthrough performance at the 2006 Olympics with a second consecutive gold in the 1000m, plus another silver in the 1500m. Chad Hedrick won fourth and fifth medals, a silver in team pursuit and bronze in 1000m, before ending his Olympic career.

2014 Sochi

The Dutch speed skaters owned the Sochi Olympics, winning eight out of 12 available gold medals. Claiming at least one medal in every event and sweeping the podium four times, the Dutch collected a total of 23 medals. The second-most successful country, Poland, won three. The biggest Dutch stars were Sven Kramer, who earned two gold medals and a silver, and Ireen Wuest, whose five total medals were the most won by a single Olympian in any sport in Sochi. 

While the Dutch dominated, the U.S. despaired: for the first time since the 1984 Olympics, the U.S. speed skating team failed to win a single medal in Sochi.

Other noteworthy winners in Sochi were Zhang Hong, who became the first Chinese speed skater to win an Olympic gold, and Zbigniew Brodka of Poland, who was the only non-Dutch male speed skater to win gold in Sochi. He edged out Koen Verweij of the Netherlands by 0.003 seconds to finish first in the 1500m.

Notable Olympic medalists

Claudia Pechstein: Most career Olympic medals
Germany’s Claudia Pechstein competed in four Olympic games and won nine career medals: bronze in the 5000m in 1992, gold in the 5000m and bronze in the 3000m in 1994, gold in the 5000m and silver in the 3000m in 1998, gold in the 3000m and 5000m in 2002, and silver in the 5000m and gold in the team pursuit in 2006. 

Ivar Ballangrud and Clas Thunberg: Most career Olympic medals (male)
Norway’s Ivar Ballangrud and Finland’s Clas Thunberg have won seven Olympic medals each. Ballangrud competed at the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympics, and Thunberg competed at the 1924 and 1928 Games. 

Lydia Skoblikova: Most career gold Olympic medals
The Soviet Union’s Lydia Skoblikova was a six-time Olympic champion, winning gold in the 1500m and 3000m at the 1960 Squaw Valley Games and gold in the 500m, 1000m, 1500m and 3000m at the 1964 Innsbruck Games.

Eric Heiden, Roald Larsen, Clas Thunberg, Cindy Klassen and Ireen Wuest: Most medals won in a single Games
The U.S.’ Eric Heiden (1980), Norway’s Roald Larsen (1924), Finland’s Clas Thunberg (1924), Canada’s Cindy Klassen (2006) and the Netherlands’ Ireen Wuest (2014) each won five medals in a single Olympics. Heiden and Thunberg also share the record for most career gold medals won by a male speed skater with five each. 

Eric Heiden and Lydia Skoblikova: Most gold medals won in a single Games
Heiden won five gold medals at the 1980 Olympics and Skoblikova won four golds at the 1960 Olympics.

Bonnie Blair: First to win same individual event in three consecutive Winter Olympics
American Bonnie Blair was the first speed skater, and one of just seven athletes in Olympic Winter Games history, to win the same individual event in three consecutive Olympics. She won the 500m in 1988, 1992 and 1994. Germany’s Claudia Pechstein matched her in 2002, winning the women’s 5000m for the third time (1994, 1998, 2002).

Blair also has won the most career medals of any American woman at the Olympic Winter Games. From 1988 through 1994, Blair won six medals, five of which were gold, while skating in the 500m and 1000m events.

Julius Skutnabb: Oldest Olympic medalist
Finland’s Julius Skutnabb was 38 years, 245 days old when he won silver in the 5000m race at the 1928 Games. The oldest female Olympic medalist is Finland’s Eevi Huttunen, who was 37 years, 184 days old when she won bronze in the 3000m at the 1960 Olympics.

Andrea Mitscherlich: Youngest Olympic medalist
East Germany’s Andrea Mitscherlich was 15 years, 68 days old when she won silver in the 3000m at the 1976 Olympics. The youngest male medalist is Norway’s Alv Gjestvang, who was 18 years, 137 days old when he won bronze in the 500m at the 1956 Olympics.    

Netherlands: Country with most Olympic medals
The Netherlands holds the record for most Olympic medals won in speed skating, 105, and most gold medals, 35. Dutch speed skaters have won or tied the total medal count at the last five Olympics: 11 medals at the 1998 Nagano Games, eight at the 2002 Salt Lake Games (tied with Germany and the U.S.), nine at the 2006 Torino Games, seven at the 2010 Vancouver Games and 23 at the 2014 Sochi Games.

Speed Skating

Everything you need to know about the fastest non-mechanical sport in the world

Basics | Competition format | Rules | Equipment | Glossary | Qualification | Origins and Olympic history | Venue

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