The mass start format is a tried and tested one at the Olympic Winter Games, having featured regularly on the biathlon, cross-country skiing and short track speed skating programmes. In fact, PyeongChang 2018 won’t be the first time it has featured in speed skating, as it made a solitary appearance at the third edition of the Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid back in 1932.
In North America, the mass start was the traditional event format, with time trials – which require very different tactics - reserved for world championships, so it was little surprise that the Americans cleaned up in Lake Placid, with Jack Shea winning the 500m and 1,500m and Irving Jaffee taking gold in the 5,000m and 10,000. The racers were set off in heats of six, going through elimination rounds to make it to the final.
In 1932, women’s speed skating was included as a demonstration event, and was contested by American and Canadian athletes; it was only included officially on the full Olympic programme at Squaw Valley 1960.
Along with the Alpine skiing team event, curling mixed doubles and the snowboard big air competition, the speed skating mass start was added to the Olympic programme in 2015 as part of the IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020.
Included on the programme for the 2015 ISU World Championships, in PyeongChang it will join the team pursuit and time trials, which take place over a range of distances between 500m and 10,000m. This means that there will be a total of seven speed skating events for both men and women.
The mass start in PyeongChang will be significantly different from its first Olympic outing in 1932, with four times as many competitors now lining up in each heat. The competition starts with three semi-finals, with the eight fastest from each progressing to the final, where 24 athletes will line up to fight for the gold. The athletes are staggered in rows of six, with starting spots allocated according to rankings.
In a line-up featuring everything from sprinters to long-distance skaters, having an adaptable race strategy is key. Races typically start off with the pack grouped together in a “peloton”, with tactics really coming to the fore in the last two laps.
Due to the large number of competitors on the ice, athletes need to demonstrate high levels of alertness at all times, particularly on the corners. Overtaking is banned on the first lap, after which a bell sounds to signal that athletes may start passing each other. Lapped competitors must immediately pull over and are out of the race. The close quarters and exciting format inevitably lead to jostling for position as well as a few falls.
To add to the drama, an intermediate sprint has been added to the race at the halfway point of the 16 laps. Points are awarded to the winners, which can be decisive in the case of a close finish. If the winner takes it by a clear margin, the sprint does not affect the final standings.
Athletes from the Republic of Korea won both the men’s and women’s races at the 2016 Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, where the event was trialled, ensuring that the event is set to generate especially high levels of interests in PyeongChang.