What are the differences between short track and speed skating? 

Some winter sport disciplines may seem similar, but a closer look shows the differences between them are huge. Do you know your ice dancing from your pairs? Could you explain the difference between slopestyle and Big Air? Don’t worry - Olympics.com has you covered with a new series to explain the nuances of the sports you’ll see at Beijing 2022. First up are short track and speed skating, which both feature athletes racing on the ice. 

By Guillaume Depasse
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

If you turn on your TV during the Olympics and see skaters racing on ice, you might think you’re watching the only speed skating event. 

However, in Olympic speed skating there are two different disciplines: speed skating and short track speed skating. 

But what - you may ask - are the differences between the two?

Read on to find all the answers and become the most informed winter Olympics fan at the dinner table.

What are the differences between the sports?

If you’re wondering why in some races there are lots of skaters racing and in others only two, here is your answer.

In speed skating, athletes race against the clock in a time trial format. There are no heats, semis or finals, just a single round where competitors attempt to set the best time. Two athletes compete at the same time but it doesn’t matter who finishes first - the only thing that matters are the times they set. Once every skater has completed their run, the one with the fastest time is declared the winner.

By comparison, short track sees athletes competing against each other over a series of rounds. In this case, position counts, as the fastest finishers progress to the later rounds. Usually, four to six athletes compete in each race, with heats followed by quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final.

Athletes wear helmets in short track, as the risk of falling is much higher than in speed skating. Strategy is key, particularly in the longer short track races, as athletes must decide whether to lead from the front to avoid the dangers of the pack, or stay behind and conserve energy.

However, there is one speed skating event where more than two athletes compete at the same time, and it is one of the most attractive, chaotic and challenging events on the Winter Olympic programme: the mass start.

First introduced for men and women at PyeongChang 2018, the mass start sees 12 athletes compete in each semi-final, with 16 athletes in the final. Skaters complete 16 laps with the top-three earning points on the fourth, eighth and 12th laps (five points for first, three points for second and one point for third). They also earn points at the finish line (60 points for first, 40 for second and 20 for third). The first three athletes past the post will be declared the winner, runner-up and third place finisher (in that order), with the points won in the split sprints used to determine the ranking of the rest of the field.

What are the differences between the Olympic short track and speed skating competitions?

Speed skating

At Beijing 2022, speed skating will feature a total of 14 events - seven for men and seven for women.

  • Men: 500m, 1000m, 1500m, 5000m, 10,000m, mass start and team pursuit
  • Women: 500m, 1000m, 1500m, 3000m, 5000m, mass start and team pursuit

A total of 112 spots are available for athletes to qualify to compete in speed skating at the Games.

Short track

Short track speed skating will feature a total of nine events at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics - four for men, four for women, and one mixed team event.

  • Men: 500m, 1000m, 1500m, 5000m team relay
  • Women: 500m, 1000m, 1500m, 3000m team relay
  • Mixed team 2000m relay

The top two finishers/teams from each heat advance to the next round, culminating in the 'A Final', where skaters will compete for medals.

What are the other differences between the sports?

The track

As the name suggests, short-track races take place on a shorter track than speed skating. The short track measures 111.12m, while the speed skating track is 400m long - the exact same size as an Olympic athletics track.

Equipment

With lots of tight turns, short-track athletes need rigid boots to maintain control of their trajectory. For that reason, the material is much stiffer than those used in speed skating. Blades are also smaller, averaging 30 to 45cm for short track and 40 to 55cm for speed skating.

As speed skating features longer straights and wider turns, athletes’ boots are more flexible. They also feature a “clap” system and a hinge mechanism on the heel, which allows the blade to maintain contact with the ice when the leg is lifted.

Athlete body types

Because of the number of turns in short track, it’s easier for athletes with a low centre of gravity. However, in speed skating it is common to see taller athletes.

Viktor Ahn, who won eight medals (including six golds) in short track for the Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation is 1.64m tall and People’s Republic of China’s Wang Meng is 1.67m. However, four-time Olympic speed skating champion Sven Kramer of the Netherlands is 1.85m tall, while his compatriot Ireen Wüst - herself a five-time champion - is 1.68m tall.

Further reading

Olympic speed skating at Beijing 2022: Top five things to know

Olympic short track speed skating at Beijing 2022: Top five things to know