Forget speedskating tradition. Here's the mad mass start!

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Posted: Feb 01, 2018 3:25 AM
Forget speedskating tradition. Here's the mad mass start!

HEERENVEEN, Netherlands (AP) — The mass start is everything traditional Olympic long-track speedskating is not.

There are spills, pushes, elbows, evil eyes and worse over 16 laps as two dozen skaters vie in a pack for one gold medal. There is teamwork, strategy and often one nail-biting sprint to the finish line.

"That is why it is so exciting," said reigning world champion Joey Mantia, already relishing the thought of lining up for the final in the new event. So is just about everybody else.

Traditionalists in countries like Norway and the Netherlands love speedskating with its endless time trials between two racers, the subtleties of lap time variations and long waits to see which times actually survives for gold.

But as the 21st century butted in with its in-your-face Olympic additions like snowboarding and jazzed-up forms of skiing like skicross and slopestyle, speedskating could not stay behind.

It needed a serious dose of cool, the complaints of boring races and predictable winners mounting at every Olympics. Critics said 10,000-meter races taking 13-plus minutes between two racers only to be followed by more of the same for the best time of a session was just too much.

So now, you get a pack of racers, let them rev up, race for seven to eight minutes, and get first to the line.

"This will get people looking at long-track and say, 'OK this is a little bit like Formula One,'" Mantia said during an interview at the Thialf oval in northern Netherlands. "It's pretty simple: you have instant gratification in terms of who is across line — first, second, third is gold, silver, bronze. That's it."

"There is no waiting for 25, 30 minutes to see who else is going to do the time trial and how is it going to unfold," he said.

And for all the comparisons to Rollerball, the ultra-violent 1975 sci-fi movie actually set in 2018, there will be no James Caan skating past bodies.

Sometimes, the race can be lulled into a tactical stalemate where skaters weave slowly across the ice before suddenly one racer bursts free on an attempted getaway.

With all skaters chasing in a pack it can get hairy, said 2016 world champion Ivanie Blondin of Canada.

She explained the attitude going round the oval. "There's girls grabbing you," she said. "When they are passing you on the outside, or on the inside, they will grab your hips and push them back. And they don't get disqualified for that," she said.

"And neither do I, so in a way it is kind of a free-for-all."

In short, she said, "there kinda are no rules."

How bad is it really? "If you like body check someone or if you do make someone fall, then you can get disqualified. But I have yet to see someone get disqualified for a fall."

And when there are hot rivalries in time trial races, there is little to see, since they race in different lanes all the time. Here it's different.

Blondin is known not to get along with Irene Schouten of the Netherlands. "We don't really see eye to eye, so it makes things a little bit more interesting."

And where the other events are carefully honed disciplines with a minimum of interference in their specific lanes, massive upsets are rare.

In mass starts, though, who knows who will win, especially in its first showing since the 1932 Games in Lake Placid.

The World Cup standings offer some guidance with Lee Seung-hoon of South Korea winning two of three races and Francesca Lollobrigida of Italy leading the women's standings.

But what counts a great deal in such races is self-confidence verging on cockiness.

"Nobody believes in me more than I do," said Mantia. "I don't think anybody has a better chance than I do to win gold and I am going to skate the race that way."

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