Slow Italian oval keeps speedskating records on ice

Updated: February 24, 2006, 12:16 AM ET
Associated Press

TURIN, Italy -- It's the most thrilling moment in speedskating: A star like Shani Davis or Chad Hedrick hurtles around the final curve and powers down the final straightaway while roaring fans try to watch the scoreboard and the ice at the same time.

Will it be an Olympic record? Will it be a world record?

No need for that sort of anticipation in Turin.

The record book is on ice at the Olympic oval.

No one has come close to challenging a world record. Only two Olympic marks have been set, both assured before the skaters even took the starting gun: Team pursuit was a new event for men and women, so naturally the fastest times went into the book, likely to stay only until the next Olympics.

"Ohhh, it's not as fun," American skater Catherine Raney said. "I'm not going to lie, it's not as much fun. You always want to skate on fast ice. It's a little bit disappointing that it's not that fast."

Not that it was unexpected. Turin was hampered largely by simple geography, negating any realistic challenge of the times at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

The Italian oval is a mere 660 feet above sea level, compared to the Utah Olympic oval -- the world's highest-altitude track at 4,675 feet. Thinner air creates less resistance, which means faster times. Also, the thicker humidity in Turin makes it more difficult to maintain the quality of the ice, or ghiaccio in Italian.

"It's like hitting a golf ball in Colorado and a golf ball in Florida," said Joey Cheek, who won a gold and a silver at these games. "There's no comparison."

There were other issues, too.

The IOC wanted the speedskating oval up and running by January 2005, but the first competition wasn't held until this past December. Even then, competitors complained about the disheveled state of the building, including the construction dust that settled on the ice. U.S. skater Derek Parra wound up with a blackened hand when he rubbed it across the slab -- hardly the sort of pristine condition that results in fast times.

Canadian icemaker Mark Messer, generally recognized as the best in the business as the guy who oversees the blistering ice in Calgary, managed to whip the Turin oval into shape, but he will readily admit that this ice doesn't meet his exacting standards.

"I am pleased in a couple of ways," he said. "We needed to accomplish three things. One was to make it even for everybody. So when the event started, it had to be the same ice at the end of the event. The second priority was to make sure it was safe. "

Mission accomplished there.

"The third priority was to make it fast," said Messer, who was in charge of the speedskating venue at the last two Olympics. "I don't think we achieved that yet -- and that is the hardest one to do. Usually, it takes years to get the right values for a building. We found it to be a bit of a challenge at that end."

Icemaking is a precise art. The ice must be maintained at the proper temperature, even when extenuating circumstances, such as a full house of more than 8,000 people, make the air warmer. In Turin, the thermostat inside the building has been known to jump as much as 11 degrees from morning to afternoon, when the races are held.

For Messer, there simply wasn't enough time to determine how the changing conditions, both obvious and subtle, affected the ice.

"We really started learning things about the ice about the 10th of December," he said. "It was good ice for the competition, just not as fast as it could have been if we had more time."

For instance, the Dutch speedskating center of Heerenveen is at sea level, but Chad Hedrick and Carl Verheijen set worlds records in the 10,000 on the very same day a couple of months ago. Hedrick took the mark even lower, to 12 minutes, 55.11 seconds, at Salt Lake City, but neither is expected to approach that in Friday's 10,000.

"It's not even as fast as Heerenveen," Raney said. "That's a little disappointing. It's really just a grudge match of who wants it the most. Fast ice is so much fun to skate on, but we just didn't get it here."

That's been evident in the times. Hedrick's gold-medal performance in the 5,000 was nearly six seconds off the world record, though he did come a mere two-hundredths of a second from breaking the Olympic mark set by Jochem Uytdehaage of the Netherlands four years ago.

With two races to go, no other individual gold medalist has come as close to an Olympic record -- much less a world record. Davis was nearly two seconds off his world standard in winning the men's 1,000. Women's 1,000 winner Marianne Timmer of the Netherlands was a staggering 2.22 seconds off Chris Witty's time at the 2002 Olympics, a world record that still stands.

That said, the Oval Lingotto has provided plenty of spectacular performances. Enrico Fabris has thrilled the home-country fans with two golds and a bronze, the first speedskating medals ever for Italy. Canada's Cindy Klassen already has four medals with another race left. Hedrick, Davis and Cheek have two medals apiece in a dominating performance by the American men.

"There have been some incredible results when you consider we are in the lowlands and this is brand-new ice," said Johann Olav Koss, who won three speedskating golds for Norway at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. "I think the competition has been really fantastic ... faster than I expected it to be."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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