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    Saturday, February 14, 1998

    Clap attack loves speedskating records

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- Upstairs, a Dutch brass band dressed in striped shirts and black bandanas gives the M-Wave Olympic speedskating venue an oom-pah beat.
     On the ice, the sound is a lot more subdued, a sort of systematic "snap" that makes each skater's trip around the rink sound like a breakfast cereal without the "crackle" and "pop."
     Listen for the clicks each time the skater takes a stride. The boot of the skate lifts up at the heel. The blade stays on the ice. When they come together again, there it is.
     Welcome to better speedskating through technology. The clap skate is a kind of hinged attack on the digital clock that sits behind the oom-pah band, driving each competitor to break record after record.
     "It's cutting just about one second per lap, and that's unbelievable," said Dan Jansen, the Olympic 1,000-meter champion in Lillehammer who is working for CBS at Nagano.
     In the men's 5,000- and 1,500-meter races, all three medalists broke the previous world record, an unprecedented frontal assault on the clock.
     CBS hopes the clap attack continues Sunday when it will show the men's 1,000-meter race on its evening program from Nagano. Also scheduled are the final runs of the two-man bobsled and the ice dancing original program. In the afternoon, the network has hockey, a review of the men's figure skating and an ice dancing preview.
     Speedskating's equipment revolution has its roots in the Netherlands, where skate manufacturers have been tinkering for years, trying to squeeze some extra speed out of the blades.
     "It's fair as long as everybody is on the same level," Jansen said. "That's why we need some restrictions on the skate. This one could be old as soon as next year."
     Jansen isn't sorry the clap skate arrived after he was through competing.
     "I feel grateful," he said. "It's nice to know how fast I could go. I know how fast I went with normal skates. There's so much tinkering with where to put the hinge, the skaters think too much about that. But you have to move forward. If you don't accept it, you'll be left behind."
     The clap concept was not immediately embraced by American skaters, who asked that the skates be banned at the 1998 Olympics. U.S. coach Gerard Kemkers questioned switching athletes to a new skating science on short notice.
     "There's a lot of new timing involved," he said. "You have to learn to time your pushes a little bit different.
     "We found a line on what is necessary to do on this skate to make it work for you. These are basically the same things as the good, old skate. It's just a little bit different timing."
     That can make an enormous difference, though.
     World champion Rinje Ritsma of the Netherlands was the first major convert. He posted personal best times in both the 1,500- and 5,000-meter races at the Olympics, but came away with just a silver and bronze medal because others were faster.
     Some skaters like American Casey FitzRandolph struggled mightily adjusting to the claps. Still, when it came time to skate here, he produced the third fastest time in the first runs of the 500-meter race and finished sixth overall. KC Boutiette was fifth in the 1,500, timed in 1:50.04, a personal best and U.S. record. They will both be in the 1,000, along with Cory Carpenter.
     "Basically, it's good for speedskating," Kemkers said. "I don't think anyone wants to stop this from happening. We wanted it to be delayed."
     He said the athletes are used to skating on conventional skates, then all of a sudden have to change to new skate.
     "That's a little bit harsh. But you cannot stop developments. You cannot stop the sport from moving ahead," Kemker said.
     Dianne Holum, a four-time Olympic medalist and now a coach, understands. "I'm more of a traditionalist," she said. "But I'm also open-minded enough to know that if this is where the sport is going, you have to follow."
     Sort of like marching behind an oom-pah band.