Like cycling, running and equestrianism, ice skating began as a mode of transport. In the Netherlands and other northern European countries, the canals and rivers often froze during the winter – so as far back as the 13th century, people decided to get around by skating on these frozen waterways.
The long and the short of it
In speed skating, athletes skate in pairs around an oval 400m track over distances up to 5,000m (women) or 10,000m (men). The separate discipline of short track speed skating also takes place on an oval track, but a much smaller one: just 111.12m, with a pack of athletes jostling for position on the ice. In 2010, Latvian skater Haralds Silovs became the first athlete to compete in both disciplines at a single Winter Games – and did so on the same day. Jorien Ter Mors (NED) did the same in the women events in 2014.
Made in England
Great Britain may not be renowned for its Winter Olympic heritage, but it staged the first recorded speed skating race. On 4 February 1763, John Lamb and George Fawn skated between the English villages of Wisbech and Whittlesey, around 25km (15 miles). Lamb came home first in 46 minutes, winning a substantial cash prize.
Since winning its first Olympic speed skating gold medal in 1968, the Netherlands has dominated the sport. In 2014, they took the top four places in the women’s 1,500m, the first time any nation had placed 1-4 in an Olympic speed skating event.
Blink and you’ll miss it
Don’t be fooled by speed skaters’ elegant gliding motion: they’re moving at great speed. When he set the 500m olympic record in 2012, American sprinter Casey Fitzrandolph covered the distance in just 34.42 seconds – an average of 52.295 km/h (32.49 mph).
Heiden to nothing
The Olympic Winter Games Lake Placid 1980 witnessed one of the greatest Olympic performances ever seen in any sport. Aged just 21, Eric Heiden of the USA won all five individual speed skating events, from the 500m sprint right up to the 10,000m. He remains the only skater to have won gold at every Olympic distance – and he did it all at a single Games. Heiden went on to become an accomplished cyclist, even competing in the 1986 Tour de France.
The speed skating competition at the Olympic Winter Games St Moritz 1928 was one event shorter than planned. The sport was staged outdoors: when the weather warmed up, the ice began to thaw, and the 10,000m event had to be cancelled.
In February 1988, Christa Luding-Rothenburger won gold and silver speed skating medals in Calgary. Just seven months later, the East German athlete picked up a track cycling silver in Seoul. In doing so, she became the first athlete to win Winter and Summer Olympic medals in the same year – and with the Winter and Summer Games now held two years apart, her record will never be broken.