A history of the fastest performances at the Olympic Winter Games

From tearing down a mountain at 145 kilometres per hour to screaming down an icy track on a sled, the Olympic Winter Games are never short on high-octane, adrenaline-fuelled action.

By William Imbo
Picture by Getty Images

There's an underlying need for speed at the Olympic Winter Games.

Every event on snow and ice requires varying levels of velocity, from a precise shot to knock opposing stones away in curling to generating enough power to execute a triple Axel in figure skating.

But while there are a few sports where victory is determined by goals scored or points awarded, the medals for the majority of the events at the Winter Games are based on one, simple element: time.

So, ahead of the Opening Ceremony of Beijing 2022 on 4 February, take a look back at some legendary feats of speed in Olympic history.

Downhill skiing (Alpine skiing)

Of all the Alpine skiing disciplines, downhill skiing is by far the fastest. The course for the event is longer, includes fewer turns and has the highest vertical drop of any discipline in the sport, which enables athletes to hit blistering speeds ranging from 125 kmph to 145 kmph.

Now, the downhill course varies from each edition of the Winter Olympics, so it's impossible to get a consistent record time at the Games as the conditions aren't the same (unlike, for example, the 100m in athletics, or speed skating - more on that later).

However, we do know the top times for the men's and women's competitions in Olympic history.

At the Sarajevo 1984 Olympic Games, Swiss skier Michela Figini won gold with a time of 1:13.36 - over 10 seconds quicker than the next top time in Olympic history (Marina Kiehl, competing for West Germany, won the event in 1:25.86 at the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics).

But to the point regarding course differences between each edition of the Games, Figini's victory came on a course that was significantly shorter than the one Kiehl competed on (1.965 km compared to 2.238 km).

On the men's side, in 2002 Fritz Strobl (AUT) conquered the infamous 'Grizzly Downhill' in a time of 1:39.13. With a vertical drop of 883m and a length of just 2.860km, the course at the Salt Lake City Games is among the fastest in Olympic downhill history; the top five finishers completed the course in less than a hundred seconds!

Luge

Luge is considered to be the fastest of the three sliding sports at the Olympic Games (bobsleigh and skeleton being the other two), with athletes reaching speeds upwards of 140 kmph. The sport is so fast, in fact, that it's one of only two events at the Games (along with short track speed skating) that are timed to the thousandth of a second in order to separate competitors.

Oh, and the phrase "Fastest Sport on Ice" is a registered trademark of USA luge.

There are four events in the luge competition at the Olympic Games: men's singles, women's singles, doubles and team relay. As is the case for downhill skiing, each Olympic sliding track is different, so let's look at the fastest times in the singles competition in Olympic history.

With the exception of the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble (when the competition was delayed due to poor weather), in Olympic competition a luger completes four runs down the track, with the combined time from all four runs providing the final result.

The Olympic Winter Games Lake Placid 1980 saw the fastest times in Olympic luge in both the men's and women's competitions; Bernhard Glass, competing for East Germany, won gold with a time of 2:54.796, while Vera Zozuļa powered her way to victory in 2:36.537.

Four-man bobsleigh (bobsleigh)

Of the four events in Olympic bobsleigh, the four-man discipline is the fastest. This is because the sled - and its occupants - are heavier than its counterparts in the sport, which means it will pick up more momentum and reach higher speeds as it descends the track.

There is still some debate as to whether four-man bobsleigh is faster than luge. The International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation notes that four-man sleds can reach speeds of “up to 150 kilometres per hour”; the USA sled that won gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics reportedly reached 152 kmph.

Bobsleigh times are not eligible for Olympic records (due to the same reasons mentioned above), but the fastest time from a four-run competition belongs to the German sled piloted by Francesco Friedrich that won gold at PyeongChang 2018 in a time of 3:15.85.

Skeleton

Skeleton is the slowest of the three sliding sports, but athletes can still reach dizzying speeds of 128 kmph.

After first appearing on the Olympic programme in 1928 (when men's skeleton made its Olympic debut in St. Moritz) and again in 1948, Skeleton was dropped from the Olympic Winter Games until it was resurrected for the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympics, when women's skeleton also made its debut.

At the 2002 and 2006 Olympics, athletes completed two runs to accumulate a total time; in 2010 the format was changed so athletes complete four runs.

However, if we were to consider the fastest single men's run at the Games, we would need to travel back to the 1948 Olympics (also held in St. Moritz), when Great Britain's John Crammond and the USA's John Heaton flew down the famous Cresta Run in 47.4 seconds in the first and second heats of the competition (Nino Bibbia of Italy would win gold, with Heaton taking silver and Crammond bronze).

Lizzy Yarnold (GBR) set a new track record en route to defending her gold medal at PyeongChang 2018 when she posted a time of 51.46 on her fourth and final run at the Alpensia Sliding Centre.

Speed skating

Speed skating has been a constant fixture of the Olympic Winter Games since the inaugural Games in Chamonix in 1924, and while new events have been added to the programme over the years, the fact that the sport is contested over the same distance (depending on the event) at every Games - and world championship - means we have official Olympic records for it.

Two women hold two different Olympic records in speed skating; triple Olympic gold medallist Jorien ter Mors - who should be one of the stars of the Dutch team at Beijing 2022 - posted a record time of 1:13.56 en route to winning the women's 1000m at PyeongChang 2018. She also holds to the top Olympic time in the 1500m - 1:53.51 - which she set at Sochi 2014.

Nine-time Olympic medallist Claudia Pechstein holds the records for the 3000m (3:57.70) and 5000m (6:46.91).

Kodaira Nao (JPN) set a new Olympic record when she skated to 500m gold in PyeongChang in a time of 36.94; the Japanese team of Sato Ayano, Takagi Miho and Takagi Nana hold the final record in the women's competition - 2:53.89 in the team pursuit, achieved once again in PyeongChang.

The Olympic records in the men's competition are more evenly spread out, with each event having a different record holder.

Four of the six records were set in PyeongChang:

  • 500m - Håvard Holmefjord Lorentzen (NOR): 34.41
  • 5000m - Sven Kramer (NED): 6:09.76
  • 10000m - Ted-Jan Bloemen (CAN): 12:39.77
  • Team Pursuit - Norway: 3:37.08

The other two records, in the 1000m and 1500m respectively, were established at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

  • 1000m - Gerard van Velde (NED): 1:07.18
  • 1500m - Derek Parra (USA): 1:43.95

Short track speed skating

Short track speed skating is a fast and frenetic sport; athletes can (and have) reached speeds of up to 50kmph.

All four event records in the men's competition were broken at PyeongChang 2018:

  • Four-time Olympic medallist Wu Dajing (CHN) set a new record of 39.584 in his qualifying heat for the 500m; he would go on to set world records in the quarter-finals and final (39.584, a mark he has since broken) en route to winning the gold medal.
  • Five-time Olympic medallist Charles Hamelin (CAN) set a new record in the 1000m after posting a time of 1:23.407 in his qualifying heat; he would go on to win bronze in the event.
  • Lim Hyo-jun (KOR) won gold in the 1500m in his Olympic debut, setting a new record time of 2:10.485 in the process.
  • The Hungarian quartet of Shaoang Liu, Shaolin Sándor Liu, Viktor Knoch and Csaba Burján won gold in the 5000m relay in a record time of 6:31.971.

The women's contest also saw two Olympic records broken in PyeongChang, as well as a world record! The Netherlands' 3000m relay team of Suzanne Schulting, Yara van Kerkhof, Lara van Ruijven and Jorien ter Mors set a world and Olympic record with a time of 4:03.471, winning the B final of the competition and subsequently the bronze medal as a result of two disqualifications in the A final.

The Dutch team have since broken their own world record in the event, posting a time of 4:02.809 at the ISU World Cup in Beijing in October 2021.

Choi Min-jeong (KOR) is the current record holder in the 500m after setting a new Olympic best of 42.422 in PyeongChang.

The Olympic record in the 1500m has remained intact since 2010, when Zhou Yang (CHN) set a time of 2:16.993 -which was also a new world record at the time - in the semi-finals of the competition. She would go on to win gold in the event.

Valérie Maltais (CAN) made history at Sochi 2014 when she broke the Olympic record in the 1000m with a time of 1:28.771. Though Maltais failed to medal in the event, she did win a silver as part of Canada's 3000m relay team in Sochi.

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