Speedskating offers chaos, control

SOCHI, Russia -- There are two types of speedskating fans. There are those who favor the traditional long track, where athletes skate gracefully around the oval, their arms sweeping and legs flowing as they race against the clock and themselves. This is the sport of Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair.

And then there are those fans who I simply don't understand because they like short track.

"I compare long track as a symphony, with rhythm, in your own zone," U.S. short track speedskater Eddy Alvarez said Monday. "Short track is like metal rock, where you're kind of screaming in your head the whole time."

That's a wonderful comparison, especially since I like symphonies and can't stand heavy metal.

The appeal of short track is seeing a half-dozen or so skaters on the ice at the same time, all racing chaotically against one another rather than a clock and one other skater separated by a defined lane. You could say it's more like the 100-meter dash, except in that event Usain Bolt is not going to lose because another sprinter suddenly slides into him from four lanes over. But that sort of thing happens all the time in short track.

"That's what makes the sport so interesting," Alvarez said. "You just never know what's going to happen until the skaters cross the line. And even then, it's up to the refs to call something."

I get what Alvarez is saying, but for all the speed, strategy and action, it still is too chaotic, too random. I remember the 2002 Olympics when the lead three skaters crashed in the final turn and the guy in fourth place breezed by them for the gold while the others crawled across the line behind him.

America's J.R. Celski briefly had the lead in the 1,500-meter short track final Monday but lost his momentum when Great Britain's Jack Whelbourne bumped him just a bit. Whelbourne went sliding into the boards while Celski dropped into fourth, lost his momentum and couldn't quite catch up.

Asked what his thoughts were as he sat on the ice after crossing the line, Celski said, "I'm thinking, 'I just got fourth.' It sucks. But at the same time, it's short track and things like that happen."

Yes, they do. In 2010, Celski benefited from the short track chaos when two Korean skaters in the lead crashed just before the finish line, allowing him and Apolo Ohno to move from fifth and fourth onto the podium.

"So it happens to everybody, to be honest," Celski said. "Sometimes you're on the good side of it, and sometimes you're on the bad."

This is simply not the case in long track. Sure, skaters can fall down, but it's rare for them to impede another skater. In long track, it's all about you and your performance. Luck doesn't enter into it. It's simply about athleticism and skill and rising to the occasion.

Which is kind of what sport is supposed to be all about.

"Sometimes it's frustrating because you can have a good race and somebody just goes really fast and there's nothing you can do about it," U.S. skater Mitchell Whitmore said. "But I like doing what I can do and let the chips fall where they may."

Indeed. That's what I saw when I left the short track arena to watch the 500-meter race at the long track venue. One skater in this lane, one skater in the other. The start signal would sound, and the two skaters would give it their all, unobstructed by anyone else. Again and again, matchup after matchup.

And when the night was over, the Netherlands Michel Mulder won the gold by beating teammate Jan Smeekens by one-hundredth of a second. Smeekens had no one to blame, no twist of fate to curse. On the night it mattered, Mulder simply was a smidgen faster.

That's the way sport goes. It's why we watch it.

Which is not to say I don't admire Alvarez. He is an Olympian and superb athlete. And when these Olympics are over, he plans to leave short track and move to a sport I admire much more. No, not long track. Baseball. Alvarez was a shortstop in college, and he wants to make the majors.

If he does, it will not be simply because several other players crashed into each other.