It’s one of the most exciting events around – and the current crop of athletes are the fastest of all time. We explain the fast and furious world of Short Track Relay…
5000m Men Relay race at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating in Almaty (KAZ) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
In a sport that is never low on excitement anyway, the world of the Relay is arguably the most thrilling Short Track event of them all. Usually there are four team of four Skaters all on the ice at once but this can sometimes go up to five teams, jostling for position, propelling each other forward with all their might – and using precision tactics to get the right racer in the right place for the all-important final laps – make it something special for athlete and spectator alike.
Daijing Wu (CHN) and Thomas Hong (USA) during the mixed 2000m relay race at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating in Salt Lake City (USA) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
What makes it so entertaining? In part, the fluidity of the rules. While Men must complete 5000m (45 laps) and Ladies skate 3000m (27), there are no set regulations about how many each racer must take part in: only the final two laps must be rounded by the same athlete.
This means there are numerous handoffs in an average race – which tend to go quite slowly for the first half, before building in momentum – with Skaters generally not doing more than a couple of laps at a time before changing over for a rest.
Ladies 3000m Relay race at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating in Almaty (KAZ) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
Short Track is not a sport raced against the clock, but it is a race against the opposing teams or Skaters, therefore strategy plays a big part in this sport. One of the key decisions is when and where to use your fastest racer – and for how long? Can you balance their speed against what might be a fresher pair of legs?
For a Skater to successfully be Relayed, a simple touch must occur – but racers soon figured out that the most momentum is maintained by using the crouch-and-propel technique.
Yang Zhou (CHN), Kim Boutin (CAN), Yara van Kerkhof (NED) and Martina Valcepina (ITA) in the Ladies 3000m Relay Semifinals during the Audi ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating in Seoul (KOR) 2017©International Skating Union (ISU).
While a busy field of play means a degree of contact between rivals always occurs, there are a number of rules in place to keep the races fair and clean. Although the same infringements rules are applied to single distance and Relay races, there are some specific Relay rules to take into account. Skaters can only come on the track to make an exchange, non-racing members of each team must stay out of the path of the racing Skaters and during exchanges, changing the lane is not allowed and exchanges are to be made straight forward directly in front of the Skater who is pushing. If a Skater gets a penalty during the Relay, the entire team gets disqualified.
Hwang Dae-Heon, Kim Do Kyoum, Kwak Yoon-gy, Lim Hyojun at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships (CAN) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
Succeeding in the Relay requires strength in depth for a national squad: for this reason, the traditionally strong Short Track nations of Republic of Korea, China and Canada have dominated the event at the Olympic Games.
Marianne St-Gelais, Kim Boutin, Kasandra Bradette, Valerie Maltais (CAN) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
Korea have won six of the eight golds in the Ladies’ Relay since the sport’s introduction to the Olympics at Albertville 1992, during which time Canada have won three Men’s golds, Korea’s men have bagged two and China’s Ladies have won one gold and two silver.
There’s never been a better time than now to watch the Short Track Relay: the fastest-ever teams on ice are currently at their peak. The Hungarian foursome of Csaba Burjan, Cole Krueger, Shaoang Liu and Shaolin Sandor Liu very recently set the world record in the Men’s 5000mat the ISU World Cup Short Track meeting in Calgary back in November 2018.
They surprised when they did it, however. “I didn’t realize at first, and we didn’t even feel that good in the race,” said Shaolin Liu afterwards. “It was a pretty rough race, quite messy with lots of passes. We almost had a fall with 20 laps to go, and I was super worried we were going to end up finishing with just three men.”
They’re also Olympic champions, and spent much of the end of last season focusing on a competition where they suspected they could win – even skipping some individual events to concentrate on their goal.
The current Ladies’ Relay Team from the Netherlands are also world record holders, with Suzanne Schulting, Jorien ter Mors, Lara van Ruijven and Yara van Kerkhof combining at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Alas, their time didn’t come with a gold medal, as it was set in the B final.
With tactics and equipment constantly evolving, we suspect they’re only going to get faster.
Don't miss the next Relay races at the ISU European Short Track Speed Skating Championships from January 11 - 13, 2019 and keep track of the action on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.