Speedskating has long been a prominent event in the Winter Olympics, from the days of Lidiya Skoblikova to Eric Heiden to Ireen Wust. But let’s be perfectly honest: It can be pretty boring. Sure, there’s grace and beauty to the skaters’ long, majestic strides across the ice, as they glide their way around the track toward the finish line. But half of the time—especially in the long-distance events—they look like they’re completely chilling. The short-track races and relays are more thrilling competitions, but they’re over in a few blinks of an eye, and those races feature only a handful of skaters going against each other at a given time.
Have you ever wanted speedskating to be more intense, to the point where racers can strategically disrupt opponents like they’re hurling shells in Mario Kart? Have you ever watched a race and thought: This would be better if it had 10 times as many racers? Enter mass start speedskating, which is set to make its Olympic debut on Saturday in Pyeongchang.
The fairly new event was introduced to the International Skating Union World Cup circuit during the 2011-2012 season, and essentially brings the excitement of short-track races to a longer format. It’s the second-longest speedskating event, as skaters race 16 laps around the 400-meter oval for a total distance of 6,400 meters. But here’s the kicker: There are up to 28 (28!) skaters all squeezed together on the ice at the same time.
While the typical long-distance format consists of pairs of skaters racing against the clock, the mass start format pits all of its skaters against each other in a traditional racing style. And unlike its speedskating predecessors, mass start is determined by a point-based system, similar to biathlon or cross-country skiing. Points are awarded during intermediate sprints that liven up the pace. After every four laps, a sprint breaks out during which the first three skaters can earn five points, three points, or one point, respectively. In the final sprint, the first three racers to cross the finish line gain 60, 40, and 20 points. In other words, mass start competitors require the endurance of long-track skaters to stay in the race, but must be prepared to unleash the speed of the short track to win.
Take the Tour de France, swap out participants’ bicycles for knives that they strap to their feet, and place the event in an ice rink instead of on a picturesque mountainside. Voila, you have mass start speedskating. The strategies of pack-style racing come into play, as skaters can draft beyond opponents or try to break away from the field. With the sprints determining the winner, it becomes paramount for the skaters to pace themselves over the race, which typically lasts around seven and a half minutes for men, and eight for women.
Some skaters, like Canadian Ivanie Blondin, seem to love the chaotic nature of mass start. “You can push people down, you can pull on people as you’re passing them, you can put your hands on their skates,” the 2016 world champion said. “It’s not developed to the point where there are set rules and it’s not watched closely enough by the referees. So you can get away with a lot of things. I’m sure if you took your helmet off and started beating someone, obviously there would be a disqualification. You’d get a yellow or red card or whatever.”
I’m a little afraid of Blondin, to be honest, but she’s on to something. This has so much untapped potential. I want to see this become roller derby on ice. I want to see some Shake ‘n’ Bake maneuvers, where skaters sacrifice their own success to propel their fellow countrymen forward. I want to see tripping, shoving—OK, maybe not too much shoving, because if this ends up becoming a version of human dominoes where everyone goes down at high speeds, 56 knives flailing around in all directions could make this resemble the aftermath of the Crazy 88 fight scene in Kill Bill. You get my point. I want the chaos that I was promised.
As far as favorites are concerned: Look out for Blondin, who’ll probably be out there trying to rip off her opponents’ heads. Look out for world champ Joey Mantia, because he’s really good, and also because he’s American. And though he’s not scheduled to compete, look out for North Korean skater Jong Kwang Bom, who clearly belongs in this version of the sport.
Now that Chloe Kim is done throwing down 1080s, the U.S. women’s hockey team has downed its archrival, and the world’s most sexually performative ice dancers (maybe off the ice, too!) have earned their gold medals, you might be tempted to check out of the 2018 Winter Olympics. Don’t do it! If you ask me, the best is still yet to come.