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Get to Know a New Olympic Event: Mass Start Speedskating

Joey Mantia leads a group of skaters in the men’s mass start event during the Long Track Speed Skating Olympic Trials at the Pettit National Ice Center on Jan. 7 in Milwaukee.
Joey Mantia leads a group of skaters in the men’s mass start event during the Long Track Speed Skating Olympic Trials at the Pettit National Ice Center on Jan. 7 in Milwaukee.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Event: Mass start speedskating

What it is: Mass start speedskating is back as an Olympic event after an 86-year layoff, and I, for one, am thrilled. American skater Joey Mantia recently described it as “NASCAR on ice,” which is pretty accurate, given that mass start competitors eschew ice skates in favor of tiny stock cars they strap to their feet. (Not really. But maybe some day—it’s a good idea!) Unlike traditional speedskating events, in which athletes race one on one, the skaters in a mass start ever go all at once—up to 28 skaters at a time—and then proceed to jostle for position at high speeds for 16 laps. Mass start speedskating involves strategy, stamina, and pushing. It’s lots of fun.

What to watch for: Sprints! The 16 laps are punctuated by four designated sprints, during which the skaters all do their best to skate their fastest. The top three finishers in each sprint earn points. While the points do not determine the medalists—those go to the first three skaters to cross the finish line, regardless of their performance in the sprints—they do factor into the remaining standings.

The favorites: For the men, South Korea’s Lee Seung-hoon currently sits atop the International Skating Union’s World Cup rankings, and you have to imagine he’ll have a bit of a home-ice advantage. I also have high hopes for Mantia, the American, who won the event at the most recent World Single Distance Championships. Mantia also owns a coffee shop in Utah, and if I know anything about coffee shops, the business is probably bleeding him dry. Win that medal and get that endorsement cash!

For the women, watch out for South Korea’s Kim Bo-reum—a great skater who might nevertheless be a bit of a jerk—and Italy’s Francesca Lollobrigida, who currently leads the World Cup rankings, and who is also a great-niece of actress Gina Lollobrigida. (Gina Lollobrigida sits much lower in the World Cup rankings.) The United States will be represented by two-time Olympian Heather Bergsma and first-time Olympian Mia Manganello, neither of which to my knowledge are burdened by owning a coffee shop.

Would this event be better biathlon-ized? Well, the fact that this is a mass start event means that, in a sense, it has already been biathlon-ized. I see no need to biathlon-ize this event further, as mass start speedskating seems to be in a good place danger-wise: scary enough to be entertaining, probably not life threatening.

Why wasn’t this event already in the Winter Olympics? It was a long time ago. At the 1932 Lake Placid Games, all the speedskating events were contested under North American rules. Among other things, this meant every event would be a mass start event. I suspect the organizers did this to increase the North American skaters’ chances of winning, given that European skaters weren’t used to skating under these rules. The ploy worked! The Americans and Canadians dominated the podium that year, and I can only assume the Europeans were so resentful that they vowed to keep mass start skating out of the Olympics for exactly 86 years.

Should this event be in the Winter Olympics? Absolutely. This should be one of the most fun events of the entire games.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

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