SOCHI, Russia — It’s never easy being the youngest.
But what if you had to live up to the standards of your much older and established sibling and do it while sharing your room with someone you had little in common with? Then you might have a sense of what it is to be short-track speedskating at the Olympics.
When short track begins Monday in Sochi in just its seventh Games, it does so with a bit of second-class citizen status to long-track speedskating, the sport’s traditional discipline. To add to the insult, short track races in the Iceberg Skating Palace, where the ice is tailored to the figure skaters it was built to showcase.
“It’s always been the little brother,” said Bryce Holbech, a consultant with the U.S. team.
Long-track speedskater Anna Ringsred started at 13. She has never competed in short track.
“I’m one of the few purists here,” the 29-year-old Duluth, Minn., native said. “I’ve never done anything else besides long track.”
Ringsred spoke playfully, but “pure” is often used to describe the difference between the sports.
To the uninitiated watching the Olympics, the sports can be hard to distinguish.
Long-track speedskaters glide around on 400-meter ovals. They set off two at a time, racing against the clock, not necessarily the other skater. When the modern Winter Games began in 1924, speedskating was on the menu. In Sochi, long-track competition is taking place in a gleaming new arena where stands have been nearly full in the first days of competition.
On the other hand, short trackers take off in groups on a 110-meter oval. They compete in packs, racing against each other and the clock. It got its Olympic start in 1992, four years after being staged as a demonstration sport in Calgary. Despite its growing popularity, boosted by former U.S. star Apolo Ohno, its schedule is set around figure skating’s, competing before the more popular, TV-ratings behemoth takes the stage in prime time.
Long trackers practice and compete on the same ice. Short trackers are sometimes forced to train next door to the Iceberg.
Long-track conditions are constant. Short trackers race on ice that can be soft and thick, as figure skaters prefer. Building technicians make adjustments to cool the ice 4 degrees to help short-track skaters. After Monday, short track and figure skating compete on different days except one, when the ice must be transitioned in less than three hours.
“I don’t know how they’re going to do it, but it will be interesting to see,” said Holbech.
The sports’ personalities differ too. Talk to skaters, and very quickly you’ll observe short trackers tend to be more whimsical and free-spirited, while long trackers tend to be focused on control.
“Long track is more of a symphony,” said Eddy “The Jet” Alvarez, 23, the first Cuban-American male Olympian. “You’re out there and you want to get in the zone. Short track is like metal rock. You’ve kind of always got to be on your toes. ... It’s more intense.”
Pat Meek, 24, began skating at 4. He gave up short track when he was 17, frustrated with skaters who responded to falls and disqualifications with a shrug, implying, “Oh, that’s short track.”
“That phrase drove me nuts,” said Meek, who grew up in Chicago’s suburbs.
Short-track skaters skate three events: 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters. Long track is more specialized, meaning racers can compete in only one of five distances in some cases. Some short-track skaters raced in almost two dozen races at the U.S. trials.
Short track is, by every measure, more dangerous. Skaters race tightly bunched not unlike NASCAR, bumping into and weaving around each other for position, sometimes tumbling into the wall. Famously, four skaters — including Ohno — collided and crashed in a 2002 final, allowing Steven Bradbury of Australia to sail to a gold.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Ohno — now broadcasting for NBC — said he finds short track more exciting to watch.
“These guys are whipping around this rink at like 30 mph, and they’re skating on a blade that’s one millimeter thick,” said Ohno, 31.
Long track is dominated by the Netherlands, where the sport is followed like the NFL at home. The Dutch have not won a short-track Olympic medal.
Short track is dominated by four countries — South Korea, China, Canada and the U.S. — who have won 104 of 120 Olympic medals. All but eight of South Korea’s 45 medals in the Winter Games have come from speedskating.
Short-track skater J.R. Celski, 23, who won two bronze medals in 2010, said he understands why the Olympics have two sports, “but at the same time, I wish we did have our own control over the ice,” where conditions were difficult in Vancouver in 2010.
Celski, the 500-meter world record-holder, came to the sport from in-line skating without trying long track. He doesn’t buy the suggestion that long-track speedskating is more “pure.”
“I don’t know what they mean by that,” he said, laughing. “We’re pure too. We come out here and skate.”