WASHINGTON — It’s coming. I’ve been waiting for two weeks — well, really, my whole life, plus two weeks — and now, it’s finally almost here. “It” is mass start speed skating, and it is going to be incredible.
I’ve always loved speed skating, so I didn’t need to be sold on a new version of the sport. But rather than the two-person heats in long-track events — which, I’m told, some of you out there find boring — this resembles the group jockeying and jostling of the four-to-six person short-track races. Except now, there are as many as 24 of them on the ice, all racing together.
Katie Couric teased mass start as “NASCAR on ice” when the Winter Games began, but it has elements in common with a number of non-ice sports. There’s team drafting and pacing strategies evocative of the Tour de France, with the favorites hanging back and biding time while rabbits sprint out ahead.
There are also races within the race, with three sprint laps, during which racers pick up points for finishing in the top three on that particular lap. With the top three finishers overall guaranteed to medal, though, it’s unclear exactly how much those races within the race will factor in, beyond racers who have no realistic shot at a top three finish.
And unlike the two-person, traditional long-track format, in which any contact results in disqualification from a skater who is out-of-position, rubbing is racing in mass start. Anything shy of a takedown is simply part of the sport. That’s drawn comparisons to the sci-fi film “Rollerball” minus the, uh, death.
Wisely, the organizers decided to put this event, with all its chaos-inducing potential, at the end of the speed skating competitions, when all the other individual and team events have finished. The mass start races will all be run on Saturday, the day before the closing ceremony. That’s good for the athletes, but it just means that much longer that you and I have to wait to see what promises to be one of the most exciting additions to the Olympics in years.
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