Short track 101: Olympic history

Apolo Ohno competes for Team USA at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. (Imagn)

Origins

The history of skating goes back over 1,000 years to when people in Scandinavia and the Netherlands used bone skates, made from the polished shank or rib bones of animals, to cross frozen rivers and lakes. Wood replaced bone until 1592, when iron blades took hold.

The use of iron blades lasted for more than two centuries, until 1850, when Philadelphia’s E.W. Bushnell made the first all-steel skates. His innovation brought about the emergence of skating as a sport. The first official long track speed skating events took place in 1863, in Oslo, Norway, with the first world championships following in the Netherlands in 1889. 

Short track speed skating emerged in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century and firmly took hold in North America in the early twentieth century. The first annual international short track championship took place in 1921.

The use of pack-style racing – with up to six competitors skating at once – became so popular in North America that for the 1932 Lake Placid Games, long track speed skating organizers chose to use that format instead of the more traditional pairs format used at the 1924 and 1928 Games. 

The 1932 Lake Placid Games represented the only time that Olympic speed skating events resembled short track until 1988. In the intervening half-century, short track’s popularity spread throughout Europe and even to Australia and Japan. 

The sport received ISU sanctioning in 1967, though the ISU did not hold official competitions until 1976. The first World Short Track Speed Skating Championships took place in 1981 in Meudon-la-Foret, France.

Olympic History

1932 Lake Placid Games

Unofficially, short track made its Olympic debut at the 1932 Lake Placid Games. While still held on a traditional long-track oval of 400 meters, the speed skaters competed in pack-style races that resembled modern short track’s format.

The fast-paced, roller-derby style seemed to benefit American Jack Shea. In front of a hometown crowd, the 21-year-old Lake Placid native won the 500m and 1500m gold medals and helped the U.S. to a gold medal sweep in speed skating.

Despite Shea’s success, the short track experiment was short lived as the so-called “North American Rules” outraged athletes from several European nations, especially quadrennial powers Finland and Norway. As a result, the pack-style races were eliminated from the Olympic program for the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Games, and speed skating returned to its present day against-the-clock format. 

1988 Calgary Games

Short track made it back onto the Olympic landscape 56 years after its Lake Placid cameo when it was held as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Calgary Games. Afterward, Time called short track “eye-opening.” Then IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch and International Skating Union president Olaf Poulsen agreed, and decided to formally add it to the Olympic program starting with the 1992 Winter Games.

1992 Albertville Games

Short track finally became an official Olympic medal discipline in Albertville. Four events were raced in the inaugural short track competition: men’s 1000m, men’s 5000m relay, women’s 500m and women’s 3000m relay. 

South Korea's Kim Ki-Hoon claimed the first individual gold medal awarded in Olympic short track when he won the men’s 1000m in Albertville in a world-record time of 1:30.76. Earlier that year, he had spent four months in the hospital after he had an artery spiked in a race.

Kim took home another gold as a member of the South Korean men's relay team. The final saw South Korea and Canada exchange the lead five times during the first 30 laps, but Kim slipped past the Canadian skater in the final stride to win by 0.04 seconds.

Cathy Turner became the first U.S. short track athlete to win an Olympic medal when she took gold in the 500m race. She also led the U.S. to a silver medal behind Team Canada in the women's relay event.

1994 Lillehammer Games

After a successful debut in Albertville, the short track program was expanded in Lillehammer with the addition of the men’s 500m and women’s 1000m events.

The two returning individual events saw two returning champions, as South Korea’s Kim Ki-Hoon repeated as the Olympic champion in the men’s 1000m while U.S.’ Cathy Turner successfully defended her 500m title.

Other significant medalist include the U.S.' Eric Flaim, who became the first athlete to win Olympic medals in both long and short track skating. He won a silver medal in the long track 1500m race in 1988, and another silver in the short track relay in Lillehammer.

The Australian men that claimed bronze in the relay became their country’s first medalists in a Winter Olympics.

In the women’s 3000m relay, South Korea won a surprise gold medal and Kim Yoon-Mi, just 13 years old, became the youngest Winter Olympics gold medalist ever.

1998 Nagano Games

Dramatic spills affected the short track podium in Nagano. In the final of the women’s 500m, the world record holder, Canada’s Isabelle Charest, slipped and took down China’s Wang Chunlu, the other top contender. Charest was disqualified, but Chunlu was so furious that she refused to finish the race—even though crossing the finish line would have earned her a bronze medal. The winner was Annie Perrault of Canada, and the silver medalist was China’s Yang Yang (S), who also finished second in the 1000m and 3000m relay events.

In the men’s relay, Team Canada took an early lead to avoid the typical relay melee and resulting falls. It worked, as they were the only team who didn’t suffer a crash. The defending gold medalists from Italy slipped about halfway through the race, and then a few laps later the Chinese team collided with South Korea. 

Nagano was the first Olympic Games to record short track finishes to the thousandth of the second.

2002 Salt Lake City Games

The short track program expanded again in Salt Lake as the men’s and women’s 1500m was added.

The most surprising Olympic champion came in the men’s 1000m race. As the frontrunners, which included U.S. star Apolo Ohno, approached the final curve, China’s Li Jiajun attempted an aggressive outside pass before catching his skate on Ohno’s. The resulting pile-up sent all four frontrunners into the boards, clearing the way for Australia’s Steven Bradbury to cross the finish line first. The four-time Olympian had a previous best finish of eighth, but developed a strategy of staying behind the pack to avoid crashes.  

Ohno recovered to finish second in the 1000m, but won an Olympic gold of his own in the 1500m. He crossed the finish line after South Korea’s Kim Dong-Sung, but the judges disqualified Kim for impeding Ohno’s path in the last turn.

China’s Yang Yang (A) was a double Olympic champion, winning golds in the 500m and 1000m plus a silver in the relay. The relay gold medalists from South Korea won with a world record time almost a second better than China’s previous record.

2006 Torino Games

Always a short track leader, South Korea nearly swept the gold medals in Torino by claiming six out of eight titles and 10 total medals. On the men’s side, Ahn Hyun-Soo won gold in the 1000m, 1500m and relay along with a bronze in the 500m. The women’s team was led by Jin Sun-Yu, who claimed the 1000m and 1500m individual titles and the relay gold with the South Korean women.

Apolo Ohno, the leading man of North American short track, added to his 1000m gold from Salt Lake when he won three more medals in Torino: 500m gold, 1000m bronze and relay bronze with the U.S. men.

2010 Vancouver Games

Apolo Ohno capped off his career in Vancouver by becoming the first short track athlete to win eight Olympic medals. Ohno claimed silver in the 1500m and bronzes in the 1000m and men’s relay.

Charles Hamelin became a Canadian icon when he crossed the finish line first in the 500m, then jumped onto the rinkside pads to share a passionate kiss with his girlfriend and fellow Olympic medalist Marianne St-Gelais. Their embrace was considered by many Canadians to be one of the most memorable images of the Vancouver Games. Hamelin also won gold in the men’s relay, sharing the podium with his younger brother Francois.

Chinese skaters swept the gold medals on the women’s side, with Wang Meng winning the 500m and 1000m, Zhou Yang winning the 1500m and Team China finishing first in the relay. Wang Meng became a six-time Olympic medalist in Vancouver, making her the most decorated female short track skater and most decorated Chinese Winter Olympian.

2014 Sochi Games

In the years after South Korea’s Ahn Hyun-Soo won four medals in Torino, Ahn suffered a career-threatening injury, was left of the 2010 Olympic team and felt his country’s short track federation was no longer willing to support him. So Ahn became a Russian citizen, and represented his adopted country in Sochi under a new name, Viktor Ahn.

Ahn’s tumultuous  journey found a happy ending when he won three golds (500m, 1000m and 1500m relay) and a bronze medal (1500m). With eight total medals, he tied Apolo Ohno's record for most Olympic medals won by a short track skater.

Ohno was the face of the U.S. short track team for three Olympics, but retired before the Sochi Games. Without him, the U.S. team not only couldn't match Vancouver's six-medal haul, but they also came close to leaving the 2014 Games empty-handed. In the final short track race of the 2014 Olympics, the U.S. men overcame their struggles to win a silver medal in the 5000m relay event.

South Korean women claimed five medals in Sochi, including the coveted gold in the 3000m relay and an individual gold for Park Seung-hi in the 1000m. 

Chinese athletes claimed first place in the other two women's events. Li Jianrou won China's fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal in the 500m, finishing first by nearly six seconds—because during the first lap of the final, her three other competitors crashed. 

2018 PyeongChang Games

The PyeongChang Games started brilliantly for the host nation as South Korea's Lim Hyo-Jun took gold in the men's 1500m. He was eventually joined by Choi Min-Jeong in the women's 1500m and the South Korean women's 300m relay team in earning gold medals for the host nation in its historically strongest Winter Olympics event.

John-Henry Krueger delivered the United States its only short track medal of the 2018 Games with a silver in the men's 1000m. Both he and gold medalist Samuel Girard of Canada avoided a last-lap clash with took out the other competitors in the heat.

An Olympic rarity occurred in the women's 3000m relay where a world record was broken... by the bronze medalists. The Netherlands, who contested the B Final for teams which failed to advance to the medal race, finished in record time of 4:03.47. Because two of the four teams in the A Final (Japan and Olympic Athletes from Russia) received disqualification penalties in the A Final, the Netherlands were given the bronze.