Gangneung, South Korea • It changes shape at will.
At times, it’s just a blob. Then as the world-class athletes reconfigure themselves going as fast as 30 mph, it resembles a serpent, Olympians all in a row waiting to make their move. It’s a sight to behold, too, this new sport officially introduced on the final night of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
It’s much harder to follow and comprehend than the traditional ways of long-track speedskating. No longer is it just a pair of skaters on an Olympic-sized oval up against the clock.
In comparison, it’s a mess. That’s why so many Olympians say it has a future here. Change is good, and the stands were stuffed and media types huddled together on the walkways behind the tabled seats to get a view of this newest Olympic race Saturday night at the Gangneung Oval.
The mass start, boiled down, is a mix of long and-short-track speedskating, where the endurance meets excess. Long-track skaters wear helmets instead of hoods. They’re up against as many as 27 other skaters in one heat. Here, in the men’s and women’s semifinals heats, each heat featured 12 skaters. In the final, it was 16 racers from around the world taking 16 contested laps for gold.
“I think it’s got a big future, it’s spectacular, you hear it, the audience like it and there’s a lot of speed in it,” said Koen Verweji of the Netherlands, who won bronze in the men’s event, “but also tactics, and that’s what I like. I like the game.”
It is a game played out in real time. Unlike speedskating, where a skater just has to be the fastest and among the first three across the line, mass start demands calculation during laps. Sprint points are awarded four times in one 16-lap event. Once a sprint lap is signaled to start, the skaters splinter apart from the blob and go for it. Breakaway groups are formed, pushing for a top-three finish on that particular lap.
Advancements out of heats are determined both by sprint points accumulated and times skated. American and Sandy resident Joey Mantia, the reigning world champion, finished fourth in the men’s final but snagged no sprint points, so in turn, he finished ninth.
“This race can go any way, so you have to be ready to adapt to any situation,” American Brian Hansen said.
What it lacks in the intensity, of taking notice of the clock and the skater trying to top the previous best time, it makes up for in entertainment. A kind not quite synonymous with the sport.
At one point while out in front, Danish skater Viktor Hald Thorup looked like a running back scampering untouched to the end zone, taking the time to look over his shoulder then glance up at the big screen inside the Oval to see where the next closet skater was.
In the men’s semifinal, South Korea’s Jaewon Chung was demonstrative when finishing second in a sprint lap, earning five points, punctuating with a series of fist bumps as the race still was going on, something you’d never see elsewhere in speedskating. There’s some added flavor to the sport, and it served as a perfect cap to the events here in South Korea, where fans were treated to this new Olympic event, which has been on the World Cup circuit since 2011-2012.
American Mia Manganello stepped away from speedskating for a few years to take up professional cycling, so she was back in a comfort zone. Mass start is all about sticking with the lead group for as long as you can before unleashing whatever you have in the tank for the sprint laps and the final lap as well. Manganello was out in front on the 14th lap with two to go, but she was more of a sacrifice.
Her job was to tire out the contenders by emptying the tank, leaving U.S. long-track star Heather Bergsma with a better shot. Out in front with just two laps to go, Manganello faded into the blob and out to the back, totally spent. She finished 15th.
“It’s right up my alley — I love it,” said Manganello, who calls Salt Lake home. “I love the speed, the contact, the strategy behind all of it, figuring it out. I’m ecstatic that it’s an Olympic sport now. I think it’s great for spectators as well.”
There are cringeworthy moments.
As skaters top out close to 35 mph, weaving in and around one another on straightaways and tight corners, wipeouts are in play. That’s where the short-track feel seeps in. In the women’s semifinal heats, one skater’s lost balance resulted in what resembled a pileup of cars on the freeway, ice being thrown into the air, fingers crossed that no razor-sharp blades end up in the wrong place.
“People are all over the place,” Bergsma said.
Exactly what makes it so enticing.