GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Whatever your plans are for Thursday, cancel them. Clear your calendar. Call in sick, or hell, quit your job. Because you simply do not want to miss Thursday’s men’s 5000m speed-skating relay. With all due respect to Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White, and all the other must-see athletes of the 2018 PyeongChang Games … this, friends, is the event you have to watch.
There’s something primal about certain Olympic events that rely on objective measurements like speed, rather than the subjective whims of judges. It’s nation versus nation, my crew versus your crew, first one across the line wins. Bring it.
The ladies’ version went off on Tuesday night, and oh my sweet heaven, did they bring it.
Short-track speed skating takes place on a rink that’s 111 meters, or about 365 feet. There’s not much room between the inside boundary of the track and the outside wall—seven meters, or about 22 feet. That’s not a whole lot of room when you’ve got four skaters wearing gleaming steel blades fighting for space—plus the skaters trying to merge in around them.
Yeah, that’s the best part: the handoffs. This is a relay race, and so every lap to lap-and-a-half, you’ll have skaters swapping in and out. And since the skaters are already hauling, the tag-in skaters have to get up to full speed. What that leads to is an incredible four simultaneous laps of skaters:
-The skater who’s actually racing.
-The skater who just tagged out; this skater slides to the outside to let the pack go by.
-The skater who moves from the outside to the far interior of the race to get up speed.
-The skater who’s on the inside of the boundary, waiting to tag in.
The transitions are a thing of beauty; the incoming skaters have to dodge opposing teams and slide into position right in front of their teammates, whereupon the teammates put hands right on their hips or butt and give them a big ol’ shove.
Basically, imagine a scenario where NASCAR cars are racing and the driver has to jump from one car to another and not lose speed. This is incredibly difficult when there’s one team on the ice; now throw on three more and you’ve got glorious chaos.
As it turned out, that glorious chaos ended up costing one team a medal on Tuesday night. South Korea’s Kim Alang slipped right after an exchange, and took out skaters from Canada and Italy. Only problem: neither country had yet made its own exchange yet. They were effectively eliminated from the race … or so it seemed.
Then South Korea, which had trailed China for most of the night, began closing the gap, and the noise that erupted from the hometown fans was that kind of uncontrolled, building glee that’s infectious. South Korea crossed the finish line a hairsbreadth in front of China, and the rafters of the Gangneung Ice Arena shook.
And that’s when everything went sideways. The referees didn’t declare a winner, not for several long minutes, and the crowd grew visibly nervous. When the word came — “penalties” — the hometowners gasped. They remembered Kim’s fall, and they knew their victory could be short-lived.
But no! The first penalty was on China for blocking. Canada celebrated for a moment, then Canada too got slapped with a penalty. That meant fourth-place Italy and the Netherlands, which didn’t even make the final heat, vaulted onto the medal stand. South Korea exulted, China and Canada seethed, and the rest of us reveled in the madness.
“I think there was no problem with what we did,” Chinese skater Zhou Yang said after the race. “We’re blessed to have the next Olympics in Beijing. The Beijing Olympics will definitely be fair, most definitely.”
“Anything can happen in short track,” the arena announcer called out, and he was exactly right. And that’s exactly why you need to watch Thursday.
More Olympic coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• South Korean skaters leave teammate in tears
• Worst Olympian? No, Liz Swaney might be the best
• Vonn: I’ll need ‘medical miracle’ for 2022 Games
• Photo shows Gus Kenworthy’s ugly hip injury
• The legend of Chloe Kim continues to grow