Friday, September 29, 2023

A Very Special Gold

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By Richard Griffiths.

It is often said that the best way to gauge the nature of a country is through its sports. If there was ever any doubt , the Winter Olympics should have removed it altogether. The nation was glued to television sets to enjoy the unbelievable succession of triumphs in speed skating. But in the midst of the shower of gold, silver and bronze there is one very special gold that promises to be the start of a revolution.

On February 16th Jorien ter Mors entered the 1500 meters women’s speed-skating and laid down a new Olympic record and the second fastest time ever skated at sea level. It blew the opposition away and secured for her the gold medal. Two of her Dutch team-mates also reached the podium.

Why was this particular gold so revolutionary? First I have to explain that there are two varieties of skating. Short-track is skated on a ‘short-track’ that fits into the perimeter of a hockey-pitch and which seems to consist mainly of left-turns. Four or five competitors start together and, in what is a physical contact sport, often seem to crash into opponents, usually eliminating all concerned. Speed-skating is on the equivalent  of a running track and it consists of a series of time-trials with one direct ‘opponent’. Jorien’s achievement was revolutionary for two reasons.

The first is that speed-skating was not Jorien’s main event. She had come for the short-track skating. To specialize in the one, and to be so  successful in the other is unheard of. The second reason is that while speed-skaters manage one event every three or four days, and stick to their training schedules for the rest of the time, Jorien had spent the 15th February skating no less than three 1500 meter races, emerging a disappointing fourth place in the finals. Two days before that she had managed two 500 meter races. Following one day’s rest she was off to try for the 1000 meter short-track final before returning for the speed-skating relay.

There are two lessons waiting to be absorbed from this experience. The first is the value of an interdisciplinary approach to sports and that there evidently are cross-over skills for such combinations. The second is that speed-skating might benefit from a more intense match regime that today is more closely associated with, of course, short-track, but also with swimming, where individuals compete in heats and finals over different distances and sometime with different styles within a relatively compact period. It posts a question whether lay-offs between events are necessary or beneficial. But the revolution will not come easily. Thomas Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) described how paradigm shifts build slowly behind the resistance of the establishment. As Jorien expressed her own amazement at getting gold ‘on the wrong track’ and her coach joked light-heartedly about the strangeness of speed-skating conventions, the speed-skating legend Rintje Ritsma, in the television commentator team, dismissed their statements as ‘disrespectful’.


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