ISU looks to up speedskating heat
SOCHI, Russia -- Mass start and mixed team pursuit races are under consideration for the Olympic speedskating program as the International Skating Union looks for ways of making the sport more exciting for fans.
Sometimes faced with empty stands during the season, hesitant sponsors and monotonous races during Olympic prime time, ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta said he wants to broaden the appeal with some changes.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Cinquanta says he seeks "to maintain the tradition of speedskating with two skaters in dedicated lanes, and to have a mass start in addition."
Mass start races would add intrigue, team tactics and a direct confrontation of skating styles in long-distance races. It could also bring some elements of the crash and tumble of short track to the Olympic big oval -- something unlikely to please the purists.
Having some of the biggest names in the sport in the thick of a new event, going shoulder to shoulder, could only help raise the profile, Cinquanta said.
"My interest is to have the big names -- Sven Kramer, Jan Blokhuijzen," he said of the two Dutch stars.
The Netherlands has dominated the 2014 speedskating program with four medal sweeps among its haul -- in one event, Dutch women finished first to fourth.
Dutch team manager Arie Koops endorses the addition of a mass start, saying "It would be great. Spectacular."
Koops already envisages having semifinals where no nation can have more than one racer before the final, and where team tactics could play a part.
"And it would also draw the inline skating nations in," he said. "It has something of short track too."
It has been done in the past. At the 1932 Lake Placid Games, eight racers set off in the 10,000 final, with the pace steadily picking up before resulting in a mad sprint for the line, with the winner stumbling and crashing across the line.
Such a race could involve a mix of long distance stars, marathon racers and skaters with an explosive finish to keep the audience captivated for some 15 minutes.
Cinquanta is also considering a mixed team pursuit race, which would be a first for speedskating at the Olympics.
"Two men, two women together, giving the team leader the opportunity to set how racing goes," he said.
It would become an extremely tactical race because of the differences in top speeds between the men and women.
"The composition of the team is very important and would be very spicy," said Cinquanta.
This is where Koops didn't really agree with the ISU president's line of thinking. Having athletes perform at anything less than their best, "you lose the essence of sports."
"I understand you want to have mixed events, but you should not do this in a pursuit because the speed differences are such that the men cannot go full out," he said.
Other options would be to have relay baton exchanges between men and women so everyone can go at top speed.
The ISU said it will review events and performances after the Olympics, especially in light of the Dutch domination.
Cinquanta said he plans to investigate why major speedskating nations like the United States, Canada and Norway fared so badly in Sochi.
"I believe that somebody is sleeping, is not working enough," he said.
Cinquanta acknowledges that domination by one nation is bad for the sport. He wants to provide federations financial incentives linked to performance. He said his organization is "available to spend some money, to invest money -- not to give money for free, like rain."
The ISU could set certain targets for federation and athletes, and if they meet them, they would be rewarded with help, Chinquanta said.
"I would not ask for the moon," he added.
Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press
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