Tuesday, February 10, 1998
Stripes of a different color knock clap skates to the backgroundNAGANO, Japan (AP) -- At first glance, they seem insignificant -- tiny strips of rubber roughly the size of a seam, hardly noticeable on a speedskater's skin-tight suit.
But these racing "stripes" -- if that's the right word for them; the concept is so new, no one is sure what their official name should be -- are the latest weapon in the technological tussle to increase skaters' speeds.
Amazingly, the stripes managed to transform the clap skate into a secondary issue.
"It used to be that you would just get up in the morning and skate," said 1994 gold medalist Dan Jansen, a commentator for CBS at the Nagano Games. "Now there's all this tinkering going on."
The theory is that the stripes provide an aerodynamic edge by cutting air resistance when reaching speeds of up to 40 mph.
Does it work? The Dutch think so, having tested the concept in wind tunnels and then springing it on the rest of the speedskating world once they arrived in Japan.
The day of the opening ceremony, the International Skating Union granted permission for the Dutch to attach a couple of squiggly stripes to each leg of their racing suits -- running from knee to ankle -- and one across the hood. Bart Veldkamp, an ex-Dutch skater who now competes for Belgium, also put the theory into practice.
Well, imagine the reaction when Holland's Gianni Romme broke his previous world record by more than eight seconds in Sunday's 5,000-meter race, while teammate Rintje Ritsma and Veldkamp took silver and bronze in times that also eclipsed Romme's old mark.
Norway and Japan both protested to the ISU. But the organization turned down the appeal because the stripes don't violate Regulation 276, which requires only that racing suits conform to the shape of the body.
"It would have been better if they had arrived some weeks earlier," ISU referee Folkert Brouwer conceded.
Several members of the American team are wearing a different version of the stripes, using a product that was pitched to program director Nick Thometz by a Colorado-based company, Spyder.
In less than three weeks, some suits were hurriedly altered and brought to Nagano by former Olympian Bonnie Blair, whose husband, David Cruikshank, skates for the Americans. Not everyone was sold on the idea, including Casey FitzRandolph, who tried out a striped suit but decided to stick with his old model.
"It's just a mental advantage," said FitzRandolph, who posted the third-fastest time in the first round of the 500 on Monday, one day after the amazing 5,000.
Spyder initially came up with the concept to improve the aerodynamics of a downhill skier. But the stripes were banned in that sport because they worked too well, causing potentially dangerous speeds.
Romme doesn't believe the stripes have as much impact in speedskating.
"Maybe they helped us, but I think the most important part was good skating and good technique," the gold medalist said. "I think the stripes did a little bit, but not much."
Dutch coach Henk Gemser said the rest of the world has no reason to complain about the stripes.
"One thing was the same for everybody," Gemser said. "After the Olympics in Lillehammer, we all had four years. We used the four years in this way. A lot of people did it another way. We tried to do it as professionals within the rules."
But Gerard Kemkers, the U.S. all-around coach, believes the ISU should have postponed use of the stripes until after the Olympics.
"I had hoped the ISU would say no, to make a statement that they rule this sport," he said. "They haven't done that. The clap skate was the same issue. They came along, and no way they were going to say, 'Oh wait a second, we'll take this under control. We'll think about it and help you guys introduce this.' They didn't. Same thing with this.
"And what do you get? You get the Norwegians, the Germans and all those people very upset, and then you have a big controversy. I don't think we should have this at the games."