Schedule of Events
Four years ago, Lee Seung-Hoon of South Korea broke the Dutch stranglehold on Olympic gold in the men’s 10,000-meter race at the Vancouver Games. It wasn’t an astounding upset, given that Lee had finished behind Sven Kramer in the 5000-meter race earlier in the Olympics at the Richmond Oval. But defending it will be a lot harder than it was to win the first time, given the circumstances surrounding the result.
World-record holder Sven Kramer was on pace to obliterate not just the field but the Olympic record, eclipsing the previous mark at each time check. His recorded time of 12:54.50 would have shaved four full seconds off compatriot Joachim Uytdehaage’s Olympic record set in Salt Lake City in 2002. With eight laps to go, he had a steadily-rising six-second lead. But an improper lane changeover, executed after coach Gerard Kemkers incorrectly hollered to get to the inside lane, saw Kramer disqualified and relegated to the back of the pack.
Lee’s 12:58.55 narrowly set the new official Olympic benchmark, barely eclipsing the mark set by Uytdehaage eight years earlier. Since the day he raced faster than he ever had before to grab gold, Lee has lowered his personal best at the distance by 1.28 seconds. It is still more than 15 seconds below Kramer’s personal best.
For the Dutchman, there is nothing short of three gold medals that will satisfy at these Olympic Games. Look for him to achieve the goal, not ahead of Lee but ahead of compatriot Jorrit Bergsma, in the 5000- and 10,000-meter races. Then look for Kramer and Bergsma to team up on the Dutch team pursuit team and potentially set a new Olympic record.
At the shorter distances, the United States’ Shani Davis is still an enigma competing at a high level. In Vancouver he became the first speed skater to successfully defend Olympic gold at the 1000-meter distance. Then the world record holder at 1500 meters once again settled for silver, just as he had in Torino.
Look for it to go down in similar fashion in Sochi. Davis recently took silver behind Michel Mulder of the Netherlands at the 2014 World Sprint Speed Skating Championships held in Nagano, and he posted the fastest combined time in two heats at 1000 meters. He has won three of the four 1000 races held thus far in this season’s World Cup circuit.
At 1500, though, Davis will almost certainly get pipped once again. This time, instead of an Italian or a Dutchman, it will probably be a Russian. Both Ivan Skobrev (the former Olympic medalist that will turn 30 the day of the 5000-meter race) and current 1500-meter world champion Denis Yuskov will threaten Davis’ time; expect Yuskov at the very least to succeed, if not both.
In the shortest of the sprints, Mulder should be able to shine as he did at the sprint championships and claim gold ahead of defending Olympic champion Mo Tae-Bum. Joji Kato, bronze medalist in Vancouver, will likely have to settle for the low step on the podium once again against these two opponents.
Men's Long-Track Speed Skating Medal Favorites
As the defending world champion at 1500 and 3000 meters, the Netherlands’ Ireen Wüst is in her prime and already has gold medals at each distance from Torino (3000) and Vancouver (1500). She could win as many as five, considering she’s competing in every distance from 1000 to 5000 along with the team pursuit.
At her specialties, though, the Dutchwoman will have to get through Martina Sáblíková. The Czech skater pulled the double last Olympiad when she won gold in both the 3000 and 5000 meters. It should be quite the duel between the two in Sochi at both distances, with the two women the clear favorites to determine between them the top two steps of the podium.
At the shorter distances, Lee Sang-Hwa could possibly sweep the 500 and 1000. The South Korean is the defending Olympic gold medalist and two-time defending world champion at the shorter distance, though she has had less success with the kilometer in the past. A Lee loss in the 500 would be a shock; only Russia’s Olga Fatkulina and Vancouver bronze medalist Wang Beixing of China have an outside shot (or of taking advantage of a Kramer-like gaffe).
But in the 1000, it should be Fatkulina taking one for the host nation. It could be ahead of Wüst at the shortest distance she’s contesting; it could be world record holder Brittany Bowe of the United States; it could be Lee standing just below her on the podium. But current world champion Fatkulina should be likeliest to step to the highest pinnacle of the medal stand to receive her gilded reward barring any incidents.
The pursuit is surely the Netherlands’ race to lose. Weakened by the retirement of Anni Friesinger-Postma and rapidly aging cast of characters, the Germans should fail to reach the podium in the history of this event. Instead keep your eyes open for Poland, who have not produced many eye-opening individual victories in their career but have shown discipline and focus in becoming a burgeoning team pursuit power in the speed skating world.