2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #15: The Single Greatest Event at the Olympics

download In terms of live events, tomorrow is the single greatest event at the Olympics.

Figure skating has artistry and camera work, costumes and color. Slope-style has the dizzying heights, brilliant sun, and amazing gyroscoping of the athletes 3, 4, 5 seconds in the air – for TV these and others are the glamor sports – great on film with awesome replays.

Short track, with its standard uniforms, fluorescent lights and indoor location looks a bit flat on TV. But… In the venue it is all action and mayhem, volume and noise in a tightly contained space where athletes trade spaces of inches and travel speeds in excess of 30mph on razor sharp blades making turns harder than jet fighters, crashing, crashing and crashing again until the winner, sometimes ejected from the mayhem emerges.

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Anyone who has been to an olympics and pretty much anyone else knows that tomorrow is the one ticket for the games if you want to leave having the penultimate olympic experience: “thrills and chills” and the “agony of defeat.” Is it unpredictable, often unfair, surprising and full of upset? Of course it is and what does all that do for the drama, the excitement and energy? It drives it, it makes the crowd manic, particularly when the home country (Vancouver/Canada ’10) and (Sochi/Russia ’14) is a driving force in the results.

The last few days the Olympic park is abuzz – everyone know knows the spectacle of short track now. In about one hour tomorrow night, the men’s 500m gold medal, womens 1000m gold medal and the men’s 5000m relay gold medal will be decided. There are FIVE teams are in the relay final, 20 men on the ice battling and it will come down to a duel between USA and Russia for the Gold. I expect USA to win but will be close and the Russian fans will WILL Ahn to the victory if they can – he’s the anchor for Russia and JR Celski will be the anchor for USA

I’ll be wearing earplugs this time… After Vancouver my ears rang for 2 days (and I’ve been to a lot of rock concerts with no problem).

2014 Olympic Games - Short Track Speed Skating 1500m

Make sure to tune in, or if you are here in Sochi let me know – I MIGHT be able to help you get you a ticket!

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #14: Days, Rhythm and Places

Friends back home ask “what is it like to be at the Olympics” and so I’ll try to describe it. Things have been busier here than the prior 2 Olympics that I worked for NBC – in some part because it is almost entirely a new team – new producer, new “talent,” graphics etc. But now that we are in the thick of competition and most of the research and prep has been done things are calming down and I’ve had some free days to establish my pattern from prior games – specifically, riding my bike, working, walking and talking, watching events and writing when time permits.

On race days, my day is pretty set – I wake up 9-ish, dress for riding in the 50+ degree weather, head out for a short 45-60 minute ride along the Black Sea boardwalk and then return to dress for the event.

The Boardwalk: just behind my hotel is a long brick paved path for running and riding along the Black Sea. I typically head out at 9. By 10:30 I return, change, shower and make my way through the heavy security right out front of the hotel and into “the bubble” as everyone refers to the secure area where all the venues are. I arrive to the venue by 11:30. Racing has been starting 1:30 or 2:00 but our production meetings have been at 11:30.

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Production meetings: Our producer is NFL football producer Rob Hyland, and director Pierre Moussa – they are serious and want everything to be perfect. We meet in the trailer in the compound of vehicles and trucks and march through the days schedule. I occasionally pipe in. I’ve made various graphics and guides for them to know what to expect. I wrote a series of articles for them and then created a set of drawings and powerpoints that they have turned into animatics or graphics that show up on TV. We do the same with the camera and replay crews and I talk more there – I’ve pushed them to go wide angle w/ 6 laps to go and created a rough sketch of how to know when passes happen. Also, and I think I’ve definitely seen the fruits of this effort, I’ve pushed them to zoom in and to capture the “pivotal moment” in the apex of the turn with close-in views of the blades slicing through the ice. My goal is to get all the basics done and add value by thinking of things no one has considered. In general I’ve been better at the latter than the former. At my first Olympics the executive producer told me as a caution, “John, they are going to scream at you –  call you names, curse you. If and when you get fired, keep working. If you get fired twice, keep working. If you get fired three times, call me.” I’ve been working in that spirit since and so far so good.

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Racing: After the production meetings we head up to the booth. I create spreadsheets of each heat with the racers and all their stats and stories for Terry and Apolo in a rather ungraceful spreadsheet that I’m constantly updating/changing. I send the completed heats to the compound where a runner brings them back to us in the venue – the “iceberg”.  During the races my job is seemingly simple: count laps for the producer/director/graphics/rewind crew in the truck, queue replays and rewinds, identify specific contact and potential penalties, identify names/colors/numbers and try to find good “soundbites” for Terry and Apolo. In the relays I also indicate which side the relay exchange is happening. In between races I update all the spreadsheets and resend them down to the compound where they are printed and a runner runs them back up. It is fast paced and hectic. I have not yet been fired this Olympics but did hear one of the graphics guys go off on me when I got something wrong, “that’s why I have a f*#@ing stats guy – WTF!” Still it is all short tempers and quick forgiveness.

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The Venues: It is hard to overestimate the sheer scale of the Olympic Plaza – on paper an through the limited perspective of a human eye walking towards them what you see is 7 or 8 large buildings nestled close together but as it turns out it is a 10 minute walk from one to the other and more than an hour to circle the park. The torch itself is of incredible scale – impossibly large and hot – you can feel the heat when you get close, can’t imagine the amount of MMBTU’s used per hour to keep that thing going. The environment is exhilarating – thousands of people all in a good mood taking pictures and more and more athletes now as they finish up, walking around in their colors. There is a band or music playing in the ampitheater all day and night and dozens of other shows and costumes and attractions, dancers, singers, jugglers, mimes, stilt walkers. On the sunny days I sat and watched people for hours in the sun – I actually have a tan. After racing I usually walk past the cauldron and then head to the USA house…

IMG_4486 IMG_4481 the scale is incredible - they play water fountain tchaikovsky ballet IMG_4477 IMG_4475 IMG_4474  IMG_4391 IMG_4386 IMG_2706 IMG_2704 IMG_2701 IMG_2700 IMG_2687 IMG_2684  IMG_2681

The USA house (and others): This is the gift that keeps giving: make an Olympic team and for the rest of your life during an Olympics if you are an olympian (“never former, never past”) you can visit the USA “house”. The “houses” are a series of dwellings/spaces – basically hospitality suites – that countries (USA. HOLLAND, CANADA, RUSSIA, AUSTRIA, SWISS ETC) build/buy to have daily meals and receptions and smooze sponsors. I spend several hours a day on average at the USA house. This is also where some of the “secret ceremonies” are held including the Ikkos award. Every few minutes an Olympian (active or retired) walks in and everyone can talk to everyone. Its just a joy to be there and reconnect with old competitors, friends, and meet any and everyone. Even the most famous walk around with their guard down. My crew last time was the active skaters in long track, but this time I often sit with Bonnie Blair during the day (I work, she talks), and then in the evening it is the retired short track crew Alex Izykowski, Chris Needham, Apolo, Ian Baranski, Tommy O’hare, Steven Gough, Steven Bradbury (when we get him in), Wilf O’Reilly. When they are not working, my second crew is Suzie Paxton, Summer Sanders, Josette Persson, Jeremy Bloom, Ariana Kukors who do features (stories around the athletes.)

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Events: being in-venue is cool but the trip up to the mountains is 2 hour each way (despite the high speed train) so other than moguls, I’ve remained coastal cluster bound. Still, the mountains are gorgeous – I went up 3 times.

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Climate: This is the weirdest winter olympics ever – we should have brought sunblock – last week the temperature approached 70 degrees. People were sprawled everywhere in the olympic park enjoying the music and water show.ImageImage

Sleep: pretty much everyone has given up on sleep – with only a few days left, mountains to the left, 8 venues to the right, the sea, the USA house and work to do, nightly sleep is diminishing as crews finish late and stay up later. Breakfast is at 11am, lunch 3 to 4, and dinner 9 to 10. The entire Olympic park is rocking from about 10am to midnight or later and the fleeting moments of joy and laughter and friendships formed have suddenly regained their fleeting nature and there is now a shadow of nostalgia and melancholy over the conversations.

Olympic Moments” – in such a special place and time as this conversations begin to turn to questions like “what was your favorite moment?” Over time though, the returning cast and crew start to ask, “what was your ‘Olympic moment’?” the implication is clear – at some point in time or place, something tends to happen that has a significant impact on your return to reality. Torino and Vancouver both had clear moments for me, but for now Sochi is holding out. Still with 4 days and nights left a lot could happen.

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #13: The Greatest Innovation at the Olympics

The greatest innovation in U.S. Olympic History (for Olympians):

No, it is not the BMW designed USA bobsled, the Lockheed Martin designed Mach 39 speedskating suits, instantaneous video replays on iPads, or Shawn White’s new frontside double-cork 1440 in half pipe.

No, perhaps the single greatest innovation for the athletes heading to Sochi is “Crowdfunding”. In case you are not familiar with the concept, here’s a definition, “crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet.” There is now a suite of relatively new online social media tools that allow athletes, Olympians and potential Olympians to cash in on the largesse provided by the intersection of goodwill and need. By using the power of social media to gather a large number of small donations, athletes are able to find financial support to cover their expenses. Some examples of these sites include GoFundMe.com, IndieGoGo.com, Dreamfuel.com, Rallyme.com

Except for a small handful of  “A-list” athletes like Shawn White, Apolo Ohno or Bode Miller, most Olympic athletes toil in anonymity for more than a decade in order to make an Olympics and scrape by through a combination of parental support, off-season jobs, and small stipends from their sports federations.

For well-to-do athletes or those in high profile sports (snow-boarding, figure skating, skiing) where ample funding is available a single-minded focus on training and preparation is all that is required. This is also the case for many athletes from nations that fully fund their athletes, think Russia or South Korea.

For the rest, a constant ever-present worry is “how will I pay for this?” -be it new equipment, travel, lodging or even food. At its extreme it reaches the levels that Emily Scott, newly minted Olympian in short track speedskating, has faced. With a mother and a sister behind bars and raised by a single father with a blue collar income, Emily, at one point, was forced to rely on foodstamps to feed herself.

One might think that making the Olympic team would finally put these fears to rest, but in reality that success breeds a whole new brand of financial worry. Sure, now their travel and food and lodging are covered to travel to the games, but just as abruptly parents and others who have played significant support roles are faced with massive expenses to try and get to the games.

Olympic qualifying trials are often held close to the date of the Games themselves to ensure the very best team is selected, but this then creates the situation of the parents and supporters of the Olympian having only weeks to find flights and lodging in cities that have been booked solid for months and with flights subject to the supply and demand algorithms of Sabre (the airline yield management software) and hotel pricing often reaching $1000/day or more at the Olympic site.

Even a weeklong trip to a place like Sochi can involve multi-leg flights to save money and then incredibly steep prices to find a place to stay anywhere remotely close to the venues. Craig Scott, Emily’s father IS coming to the Olympics, thanks in large part to crowdfunding, but here’s his flight plan: Kansas City to Chicago, Chicago to Washington DC. Washington DC to Istanbul, Istanbul to Germany, Germany to Sochi. Here’s how Craig Scott will get to Sochi. He will board a plane in Kansas City and go to Chicago. From Chicago he will go to Washington. From Washington he flies to Turkey. From Turkey he flies to Germany.

For middle class parents there is always credit cards, but what about young spouses, fiancés or boyfriends/girlfriends? Often those that participated or sacrificed the most are forced to watch and cheer from afar.

Enter Crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding has existed for years in various forms – be it innovations looking for startup money, patients needing medical treatment seeking support, or artists with a new idea, but this emergent social media platform is potentially at its best in supporting potential Olympians. Finally there exists a way to tap into the general support of the USA! USA! Spirit and collect large numbers of small sums to support the real needs of an athlete and their family.

Emily Scott is perhaps the most direct example. After applying for foodstamps she decided to create a GoFundMe page and at the same time had the luck of a USA Today article to lend visibility to her plight. In particular, other than feeding herself, she was most anxious that her father Craig would join her in Sochi. 24 hours later she had $30,000 in donations – most of them small, but in quantity, and by late January she had $49,000 from more than 650 donors – more than enough to ensure that her father could join her at the games.

Emily's gofundme page

Emily’s gofundme page

The list of athletes receiving significant support is substantial – from Emily Scott raising over $50K to fellow short track speedskater Kyle Carr raising $14,000 to bring his mother to the games. Lindsey Van, part of the new retinue of women’s ski jumpers, raised $20,000, Sugar Todd a long track speedskater raised almost $6000 to bring her parents to the games, while teen brothers and Danny and Drew Duffy raised over $50,000 on RallyMe to cover their expenses.

Others, though have struggled with getting visibility in order to generate support. Bobsledder Elana Meyers has only raised $738 to date proving that just having a campaign is no silver bullet.

Through Crowdfunding, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised to ensure that those that compete, and those that sacrificed for their success have the support required to share in the experience. This is particularly important given the relatively new tradition of the “Order of the Ikkos” award where each medaling Olympian gives a medal to the one person who supported them the most. Hard to give a medal to someone thousands of miles away because they couldn’t afford to come….

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Epilogue: The Post Olympic Hangover

I am particularly envious of this emergent source of funding. After graduating college I trained full time for eight years and made one Olympic team where I earned a silver medal. Along the way I used credit cards to fund my dream. As a recent college graduate I was able to apply for an receive over 50 credit cards which I used to pick up and rotate $87,000 in debt to by the time I retired from the sport. My parents also spent years paying off their visit to Lillehammer, Norway. Here’s a REAL picture of the 50+ credit cards I used to fund my dream. I eventually paid them off…

50 credit cards - to a guy with no job

50 credit cards – to a guy with no job

For olympian Alex Izykowski, the burden fell to his parents, who are still filling in the financial hole they dug to ensure his success and bronze medal in the 2006 Torino games. “My hometown community really pulled together to help fund my family’s expenses to travel to Torino, but the 10 years of debt we accrued leading up to my Olympics is an ever-present burden they are still paying off.” Alex’s dad agreed, saying, “Its like a post-olympic hangover you can’t shake.”

Sadly it is hard to ask for crowdfunding support in retrospect so Alex and his parents have little to no opportunity to tap into this emergent funding source. However, for new athletic hopefuls, crowdfunding fuels an olympic dream while reducing the post-apocolyptic olympic hangover.

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #12: The Media Caste System

There is a very interesting dynamic with regards to media personnel here at the Olympics (and probably other large events.) There is an unwritten caste system that informs all aspects of life, travel, work and access that governs behavior. For the most part it appears to be unwritten and you figure it out as you go. Bumping up against the next level up runs the risk of the equivalent of a hand-slap. Each level within the hierarchy has an escalating level of perks and power, starting w/ volunteers and interns, all the way up to “super talent.”  There are roughly 5 levels or castes and I’m a “level 3″ within the system which has an unusual benefit in that the level 1’s and 5’s work some of the worst / longest hours.  Here are the levels and their benefits / drawbacks and then details below:

Level 1: Volunteers, Interns, PA’s
Level 2: Production, camera, truck
Level 3: Experts, Analysts, researchers
Level 4: “Talent” and Producers/Directors
Level 5: “Super-Talent”

Level 1: Volunteers, Interns, PA’s – these are mostly very young and have jobs like “runner” or “spotter” or many of the volunteers merely stand in the venue to tell you if you can, or can’t enter an area. They live in the “volunteer village” or “media village” – huge complexes with bare bones accommodations usually a good distance from the venues and for the most part the level 1 folks do not have access to any of the venues unless they work in one, and some will spend the entire games in the IBC (International Broadcast Center) and possibly not even see an event (unlikely here in Russia due to the proximity of all the venues). They take public transport and buses or walk to get around. It is a rare treat when they get to tag along in a private car w/ the talent

Level 2: production and camera, truck crews  – these are the crusty veterans that make it all happen. They have credentials for key events and the commissary (food) and tend to be older and full of stories. They stay in 3 star hotels and some of them get on the “charter” – the direct flight to the games vs. the regular airline flights. They can often be found in circles outside the event smoking and telling stories. They work long hours, but sometimes get breaks.  Predominantly male, they also sometimes have transport due to their equipment.

Level 3: Experts, Analysts, researchers. Neither “talent” nor production, there is a few of us that enjoy some of the benefits of talent without the drawbacks of the Level 1 and 2 folks. We tend to have credentials with “ALL” on them so we can go to all the venues and see all the events. We get to fly on the charter and stay in a 4 star hotel. We often get to tag along with “talent” and ride in the private cars, but only when invited. If the car is full with talent, it would be a breach of protocol to ask to join. We are often in the meetings with talent / producers, but play a marginal role. We do some camera work, but not the main event. Because of specialized knowledge that is applicable before and during the event, but not so much after, we are often set free just as talent and production and directors/producers get busy. In Torino, races finished at 10pm, I was set free at 10:30pm and the producers, directors and talent stayed until 5am doing voiceovers and fixes. Level 3 jobs in my opinion are the best jobs at the games because on off days we have an all access pass to go watch any event and after the first event are mostly left to do what we want. Being a level 3 former olympian (many of us are) has double privileges as we are also invited to events, parties, and many of the “houses” with receptions etc. There is never a lack for things to do, people to meet, food to eat, or wine to drink.  Other “level 3″ players in Sochi – Mark Greenwald (long track) Kristi Yamaguchi and Katerina Witt (figure skating), Picabo Street and Jeremy Bloom (skiing), and Summer Sanders.

Level 4: “Talent” and Producers/Directors. There are some distinctions between “talent” and the producers/directors, but for the most part they have the same perks. They fly business class to the event, they have a private car and driver ready at a moments notice to take them anywhere, they stay in 5 star hotels and have the same all access credential Level 3 gets. The levels below them treat them with deference and both “talent” and producers/directors can be demanding. One distinction is that producers and directors tend to mock the talent a bit as “talent” tends to be less organized/timely/responsible than the hardcore “we have a show to put on” mindset of the producers and directors. At its simplest, “talent” has trouble being on time and following directions and the producers and directors want everything done yesterday and “better.” Both of them work long hours – particularly in situations like Sochi where it is not “live.” Live action results in no ability to “fix”. Taped means that producers and directors can exercise their desire for perfection and often results in very late nights doing “throws” and “lobs” and fixes.

Level 5: “Super-Talent”. Costas, Matt Lauer, Al Roker and the most senior executive producers are a whole other level of “talent”. Apolo is also mostly in this caste. They fly first class, get the suites in the 5 star hotels, and have “handlers” there to answer their every beck and call. Their credentials have special tags to get them into every room and they can go to the “NBC house” attached to the USA house. However, they also work crazy hours and end up working most of the games.

So, to conclude, I have the best job at the Olympics.

Photo: Sochi here I come! "ALL" is the best part: it means access to ANY event, on the field of play.

The all access credential – the single greatest perk of level 3 and above

IMG_2672The Media Village (above)

IMG_2673The “talent” hotel – Radisson Blu

IMG_2674My Hotel – not too shabby

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #10: How To Watch Short Track – Part 2

Tonight, the first set of short track races will be aired on NBC. The men’s 1500m Gold medal race is tonight as well as the women’s 500m heats and relay heats. Since it is tape delayed, here’s a picture of us calling the races.  IMG_2635

So, what can you expect tonight? Here’s a summary:

SHORT TRACK SPEEDSKATING – a primer

 Basics:

The logistics of the sport of short track speedskating are easy to comprehend. A simple visual will suffice: inside the nicked and gauged plastic walls surrounding hockey rinks the world over an oval track is laid out using black plastic lane markers: 111.12 meters in length.

The short track rink

Add a half dozen speedskaters in their skin tight multi-colored suits racing for the finish line – like track and field or horse racing – and the simple format is complete.

The logistics of short track speedskating are also straightforward – a fixed number of laps (or half laps) comprising an even distance in meters (500, 1000, 1500, 3000 or 5000 meters), with the first skater across the line being first.

Time on the stopwatch, while an interesting anecdote, does not factor into the results except for the honor of holding a record.

Racing

Yet, like many things in life that seem straightforward, the actual play by play of the sport tends to defy the simplicity of its rules. Crashes, interference, and disqualifications factor into the results at levels unprecedented in any other sport, and even in “clean” races, the dynamics involved with multiple competitors lined up on a tight, short, narrow track of ice going 35 mph on 1mm wide, 17 1/2 inch blades means that the “fastest” skater quite often does not win.

One need only to remember watching the Australian Stephen Bradbury in the 2002 Olympics, who advanced by luck of disqualification in the 1000 meter heats to the semi finals. Self admittedly the slowest skater in those semi-finals, he proceeded to win that race – after all the other skaters crashed, placing him in the finals and into the medal round. Then again in the finals, while pacing off the back of a pack of top ranked USA, Korean, and Canadian skaters, Bradbury managed to avoid disaster and come across the line first – again not through his own merits – rather through the misfortune of the leading skaters. The gold medal was his – even though his efforts in all the preceding rounds suggested those of a non-contender.

Given the seeming randomness of the results, one might be inclined to shake ones head and put the whole thing down as a bit of a lottery. One thing is for sure, in any given race, luck will play a part. It is this unpredictability that makes it the crowd favorite for all the other athletes at the Olympics

Analogies

Short track tends to draw two analogies in sports – first, Nascar – due to the importance of drafting and the critical path skaters must follow to maximize their speed, and second, horseracing, for the relative importance of the track conditions and race length in the final result.

Who will win on any given day? It depends….

  • Is the ice soft or hard?
  • How long is the race?
  • What combination of skaters are are racing? How will it play out?
  • What unforeseen events will occur?

What does it feel like?

Think back to certain winter moments – those times of walking on slick, wet ice – to your car across frozen puddles, or down the sidewalk after a freezing rain.

Then remember that moment when your shoes first touched dry asphalt after sliding across the icy puddle, or the instant when you regained traction after passing back underneath the porch roof. To a speedskater, that is exactly what it feels like to be on ice with our long blades – it is feeling of traction and grip, stability and power.

An 17.5” speedskating blade on perfectly smooth ice is grippier than rubber on asphalt and more stable than a ski on snow. A Nascar can only pull 1 G-force on dry pavement, the space shuttle hits 3 G-Forces in launch, and a short track speedskater hits 2.7 G’s at the apex of the corner.

The blade, its sharp edge, and its tracking ability while in motion, are able to smoothly receive every ounce of energy provided by powerful leg muscles to propel the skater forward.

Granted, the motion is sideways – like tacking in the wind with a sailboat – but the 17 inch blade is like yards of canvas gathering wind: the lateral forces are released in a tangential motion and converted to forward speed smoothly yet powerfully. Each stroke on the ice is a combination squat thrust (sheer power) and ballet (no wasted motion, fluid extension to the very tips of the range).

Now imagine that ultimate grip – no amount of effort will result in a slip – and a slow concentrated thrust  through with the legs: massive force passing in liquid slow motion through the blade to the ice.  The strength of the contracted leg is absolute, and the hold of the blade provides a supreme feeling of power. The controlled release of the piston-like skating stroke brings to mind the action of a hydraulic cylinder – a fluid, consistent, and powerful.

If you have ever had the ill-fortune to push a stalled car, and were lucky enough to have a curb or wall as a backstop for your feet, then that incredible slow thrust you were able to deliver to the car to get it moving is the closest thing in life to the feeling of a speedskating stroke: a 1000lb squat thrust.

Now, add to this motion the g-force dynamics and angles of a jet fighter and you have the right combination.

As a skater moves towards the corner, there is a momentary feeling of weightlessness as the body lifts with the final skate stroke, and then falls as the body and center of gravity compresses downward and sideways to enter the corner.

As the direction of the skater changes, centripetal forces cause a 2.7G acceleration to crush the body lower. In order to stay aligned over the center of the 1mm blades, the skater rolls inward, and the upper body leans way out over the blocks at an angle of 65 degrees+.

The powerful motion of the crossovers (corner strokes) then take over and compel the preservation of the momentum carried into the corner. Timed right, you’ll see the powerful transition of the full extension of the left leg underneath the right leg, both blades carving firmly just prior to the apex of the corner (the center-most block).

A smooth transition of the force between the two legs at that precarious moment preserves the integrity of the corner and allows the skater to enter a “pivot” – a one footed change of direction back toward the far end of the rink, and then relax the arc of the corner a bit through the latter half – reducing the G forces and allowing multiple crossover strokes of acceleration into the straightaway. The apex block is also the focal point of most crashes and many disqualifications. At the point of the turn the muscles of the body are stressed to the max – imagine squatting down to a 90 degree bend on one leg… holding it, and then putting on 2 of yourself on your back: the additional pressure provided by the almost 3G acceleration of the turn). Then balance all of that on a 1mm blade, headed toward the wall, on ICE.

As the skater exits the corner, the body decompresses and lifts with the center of gravity returning to vertical. A pair of straightway strokes later, and it starts again.

Is it hard?

This extremely controlled and concise motion is difficult. However – the motions are repetitive – unlike ballet the number of required motions is drastically reduced. The real difficulty of the sport lies in the compression of the body required to form the aerodynamic shape. Wind resistance, ultimately, is the primary obstacle to speed.

If speedskating races were held a vacuum, a skater could stand nearly upright and kick out a series of highly powerful shallow strides in rapid sequence to attain maximum speed. However, with the friction of wind the comes with speeds approaching 30 mph, the skater is required to try and form a teardrop shape, with arms and legs bent in a greater than 90 degree angle. The loss of muscular leverage at these compressed angles is severe – I won’t try to describe the physics, but just imagine these two examples:

1) Imagine if you had someone sitting on your shoulders. Now, in a fully upright standing position, imagine bending your knees slightly and then straightening them again. If you can imagine that situation, you probably can imagine that performing that minor knee bend and subsequent straightening would be very easy. The human body’s power output from near-full extension of the muscles involved is tremendous. Most of us could imagine even jumping a little with that weight on our back. However, this position is ineffective due to the constraints of wind resistance. Instead…

2) Imagine squatting down – all the way down, sitting on your heels. Then extend one leg straight out – kind of a Russian dancer stance. Now, balanced on that one foot try to stand up using only the completely bent leg’s power: nearly impossible for anyone other than an acrobat, Russian dancer, or speedskater. Do that with the weight of another person resting on your shoulders (from the centrifugal force) while traveling 30mph, tilting sideways at a crazy angle balanced on a 1m blade and you have the essence of the sport. (Here’s a rough diagram I put together for NBC with estimates of the forces:)

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 5.13.21 PM

The compressed body position required by the aerodynamics of the sport demands high power from the legs in a full range of motion, with an extreme amount of coordination of balance, timing, alignment of weight and effort, and subtle coordination of a series of heretofore unused muscles in the abdomen, hip, knee, and ankle to ensure that the powerful compressed stroke passes evenly sideways without interruption or slippage.

This is why few that have started the sport after age 13 succeed, and how a 25 year old skater with 5 years of experience will look like an awkward novice compared to a 10 year old with the same experience. After some point, the synapses required for this kind of exquisite control wither away and cannot be trained.

The only exception to this hard and fast rule is the relatively recent crossover of in-line speedskating athletes. Not surprising considering the similarities of the two sports.

Why all the disqualifications?

In the relatively recent years since short track speedskating has entered the mainstream consciousness, it has brought along with it the expected perceptions of speed and danger and unpredictability. In addition, there also exists an ongoing element of controversy with regards to the judging system and the calls for disqualification (or lack thereof) that have occurred in many of Olympic races.

As an example we can remember back to 2002, where in the1500m mens final, a disqualification of Korean skater Kim Dong Song led to a gold medal – a first for American men – being awarded to Apolo Ohno who crossed the line second. However, the controversial nature of the call, and the dearth of medals for the strong team of Korean men led to highly publicized death threats from the Korean public. When Apolo returned to Korea for the first time since the 2002 Olympics for the 2005 world championships, he was met at the airport by 100 policemen in full riot regalia – just in case.

Then, of course there was the 1000 meter incident with Bradbury…

One unexpected outcome of all the uncertainty in the sport of short track is cultural in nature. One might expect that with all of the clashes and crashes, disqualifications and controversy that the tensions between rival teams and competitors might be very high: that the close proximity in the races might result in a natural distancing factor between athletes off ice and outside the venue.

Surprisingly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A look at the sister sport of long track speedskating, a sport with no physical contact, few to no disqualifications, and racers competing almost clinically against the clock (in separate lanes and only two at a time) finds a culture where competitive tensions are at their highest. Long Track speedskaters are, more often than not, solitary, taciturn creatures, with serious countenances betraying the competitive tension embodied in every activity.

Short track skaters, in contrast tend to convivial, open and playful, with the occasional prank between and within teams a long standing tradition – a culture where each emotional explosion at the referees for a disqualifaction (or lack thereof) is equally matched by the off ice hijinks, stories and accompanying laughter between the skaters in their locker rooms, in the shared spaces playing hackysack, and back at the hotel over dinner. It as if the vagaries of the sport, the unpredictability of the results, and the shared suffering of uncertainty over the whims of lady luck has created a common culture of tolerance, humility and respect between athletes of different cultures, languages and perspectives.

There is an oft repeated, little understood phrase repeated consistently by the competitors that ultimately reflects this shared understanding. Apolo Ohno was interviewed on camera after the 2002 Olympic 1000 meter gold medal race where he crossed the line sprawled across the ice belly up in second place after being taken down from behind by a chain reaction four skater crash in the final corner. He had just lost certain gold to the unlikely Australian Steven Bradbury who glided in on the wings of lady luck – well out of contention – yet the winner of the coveted gold medal.

Asked for his views on the events that had unfolded, it would have been understandable if Apolo has been less than charitable: he could have said things such as “it was unfair, I had it in the bag, the Korean skater grabbed my leg, Steven wasn’t even a contender…” but true to the culture of the sport, and out of respect for the dozens, if not hundreds of races that Steven didn’t win under similar circumstances, Apolo merely shrugged, smiled, and uttered those those seemingly innocuous yet significant words repeated over and over in this turbulent and exciting world: “That’s Short Track.”

It sure is.

 

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #9: How To Watch Short Track – Part 1

How to Watch a Short Track Race:

  1. Recognize that time doesn’t matter – so in the longer races, the pace may be slow in the early goings
  2. Know that drafting is a factor and that taking the lead with more than 4 or 5 laps to go probably means you’ll get passed by the skaters getting a 20% increase in efficiency by following in your wake
  3. Know that because of 1 & 2, the laps between 7 to go and 5 to go are where a great proportion of passing and maneuvering happen. Each skater HOPES that with 5 to go they find themselves in second or third place with a skater up front who has the pace high and will fade at the end.
  4. Know that passing on the outside is less likely to lead to a penalty for contact, but a LOT harder – only the best can do it at speed.
  5. Know that passing on the inside is easier, but runs the real risk of contact and if the skater doesn’t get 1/2 body length lead will be called for a penalty and be given last place points
  6. Know that passing on the inside and having contact around block 3 in the corner often leads to falls and if so, runs the risk of also causing a yellow card to be issued which means that skater penalized will get no points.
  7. Lap times above 11 seconds are SLOW, lap times of 10 seconds or so are medium. Lap times of 9 seconds are fast, and lap times in the low 8′s are ALL OUT – 35mph plus.

Here’s a preview for the physics of part 2:

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http://www.nbcolympics.com/video/figure-skating-short-track-ice-differences

Tomorrow we will dig farther into the physics

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #8: The Metal Barrier Habitrail

Most of my fellow journalists as well as the athletes are mystified by all the questions and press about poor accomodations, no running water, and hotel rooms without doors. Yes, everything is brand new and there are kinks to be worked out, but from one person’s limited purview, for the most part everything is up and running.

Here’s the rub though – this incredible Olympic Park, with 8 massive venues all in close proximity, suggests that everything is a few minutes walk away – in fact no venue in the coastal cluster is farther than 400m from the other. Incredible! Amazing! All built from scratch on the beautiful Black Sea, except…

Yesterday it took me 2 hours to transit the 400 meters from my hotel to the Iceberg venue. There are 2 hurdles to go to a venue:

1) To pass security – yesterday due to opening ceremonies the line was an hour long and…

2) The Metal Barrier Habitrail – each day they arbitrarily create barriers in and around all the venues and if you don’t know the few slots through them, you can find yourself walking fruitlessly toward and away from your destination, hemmed in by a silver wall of bars. Yesterday I walked within paces of the Iceberg only to find myself following the grid of steel bars farther and farther away and ultimately circling the entire compound, a full hour’s walk

Still, you have to hand it to the security teams – there’s just no way to know the way into the “bubble” because they change the patterns of the iron grid every few hours, so even though it is a pain to see my hotel yards away yet 1/2 mile or more, it does make us feel safe.

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #7: What an Accomplishment – Sochi 2014

Sure not everything is complete, sure not every “t” is crossed or “i” dotted, but for sure tonight was an amazing accomplishment – for the first time in olympic history against a backdrop of security threats in an unknown region of the world, a ceremony par excellence was held.

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Security was tight and 5 major venues within walking distance were built and fully operational along with hotels, buses, streets, water, stores, supplies, electricity, gasoline, propane, natural gas, coal, sanitation and everything else required to move heaven and earth for an event like this.

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Was it perfectly orchestrated like the opening ceremonies like Beijing? No, but for myself I found a new-found sense of humility and humor in the occasional faux pas of the ceremony, and an incredible sense of accomplishment for what they have created – out of nothing – in one of the world’s most remote but interesting areas. 

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As for my hotel – the Azimut Hotel and spa on the Black Sea, it is fantastic. Perfect? No, but the setting is gorgeous and the facilities include features like an “ice-fall” as well as herb infused steam rooms, sauna, massage, and a huge pool. All in all, the fact that my door doesn’t quite close without an extra shove, and the phone in my room doesn’t seem to reach anyone is a minor nuisance compared to the safe and comfortable environment they have created.

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Can’t wait for what tomorrow brings.

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