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A Rookie's Guide to Short Track Speed Skating at the 2018 Winter Olympics

Don't know anything about short track speed skating? No problem. Here are all the basics you need to know before the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea are right around the corner! That means it's time to watch sports you might not have seen in four years. To help you feel at least a little more informed—either to impress your friends or fake your way through a conversation with an actual expert—SI will be providing rookie's guides to each of the 15 sports. These will be published daily, Monday through Friday, from December 4-22.

Your favorite speed skater Apollo Anton Ohno will not be competing in PyeongChang, but that doesn't mean the short track speed skating at the upcoming Games will be any less exciting or beautiful. 

The short track races put a premium on explosiveness and strategy, but the skaters' synchronized movements and long, smooth strides give the competition an element of elegance. Speed skating is the quintessential Winter Olympic sport—it's nearly impossible not to enjoy, but it's also highly unlikely that you'll watch any non-Olympic action.

Here's everything you need to know about one of the easiest Winter Olympic sports to understand. (Spoiler alert: It's like track, but competitors don't run; they skate!)

What is short track speed skating?

Short track speed skating is an umbrella term that encompasses four men's and four women's races. Each race takes place on an oval track of ice that is 111.2 meters long, while the entire sheet of ice is 60 meters long and 30 meters wide. 

The simplest way to conceptualize short track speed skating—and there's really no reason to complicate things—is by thinking of it as a track and field race, but on ice. The one main difference between the short-distance track races and short track speed skating is that there are no lanes in the short track, so there is a bit of an advantage for those who start on the inside starting position. 

Skaters travel in a counterclockwise direction, which means only left turns are made, just as in NASCAR.

What's the difference between short track speed skating and speed skating?

A few things. The first and most obvious difference is the track size—the short track events are, as the name might suggest, contested on a significantly shorter track than the speed skating events. In true make-or-break fashion, competitors in speed skating events get just one timed run on the track per distance. Their performance in that one run determines their finish. On the other hand, short track competitors skate multiple times as they progress through multiple rounds before reaching the final. 

2018 Winter Olympics: Short Track Speed Skating Schedule

In the short track events, skaters compete in heats that are usually between four and six skaters in size. In most speed skating events, two skaters race at a time. 

What are the different events?

Both men and women compete in the 500m (4 1/2 laps), 1000m (9 laps) and 1500m (13 1/2 laps).

The 500m (4 1/2 laps) is a dead-out sprint in which the start is crucial. The men's world record in this event is 39.937 seconds, set by American J.R. Celeski in 2012. The women's world record is 42.335 seconds, set by the United Kingdom's Elise Christie in 2016.

The 1000m (9 laps) puts equal emphasis on sprinting capabilities and tactics. The men's world record in this event is 1:20.875, set by South Korea's Hwang Dae-Heon in 2016. The women's world record is 1:26.661, set by South Korea's Shim Suk-hee in 2012.

Finally, there's the1500m a grind that rewards stamina and strategy. The men's world record in this event is 2:07.943, set by the Netherlands' Sjinkie Knegt in 2016. The women's world record is 2:14.354, set by South Korea's Choi Min-jeong in 2016.

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In addition to the three distances that the men and women both compete in, the men participate in a 5000m four-man relay (45 total laps) and the women compete in a 3000m four-woman relay (27 total laps). The men's relay world record is 6:29.052, set by the U.S. in 2017, while the women's is 4:04.222, set by South Korea in 2016.

When did short track speed skating become an Olympic event?

Short track made its Olympic debut in 1992 at Albertville, Canada, but only four events were contested there: the men's 1000m, the women's 500m, the men's 5000m relay and the women's 3000m relay. In 1994 the men's 500m and women's 1000m were added. The men's and women's 1500m were finally added in Salt Lake City in 2002. 

What are the rules?

The guiding principle for short track speed skating is to cross the finish line first. It is, after all, a race. And while allowing skaters to tackle, block and trip their competitors would arguably make for a more entertaining spectacle, there are guidelines that prevent that sort of thing. The following actions will result in disqualification (per the International Skating Union, whose rules are used in the Olympics):

Impeding: Pushing, blocking, tripping or otherwise causing an impediment for another skater.

Off track: Skating outside the designated track.

Assistance: Giving physical assistance to another skater. For example: Pushing a teammate from behind for an extra boost, or allowing a teammate to lean on another for stability around corners.

Shooting the line or kicking out: Driving the foot in lead ahead to reach the finish faster, resulting in the lead foot lifting off the ice and creating a dangerous situation for others.

Equipment: Not wearing the proper safety equipment, losing equipment during the race, or exposure of skin not on the face or neck. 

False Start: Leaving before the firing of the starter's pistol. On the second violation in the race, the offender on that start is disqualified.

Did not finish: Usually due to injury, if the skater did not finish the race. 

Did not skate: If the skater did not go to the starting line.

There is one more rule that's unique to the relays: Unlike track relays, where each competitor must run the same distance, teammates may pass the baton at any point during the race except for the last two laps, which must be completed by one person. This adds an element of strategy, as teams must decide when they feel it's best to switch to a new skater. 

What is the format of the competition?

The format for the men's and women's 500m and 1000m are the same. The competitions begins with the first round, which features eight heats of four skaters each (total of 32 skaters). The top two finishers from each heat move on to the quarterfinals. In the quarterfinals, the 16 skaters who advance are divided into four heats of four skaters each. Again, the top two finishers (total of eight) advance to the semifinals. The semifinals consist of two heats of four skaters each (eight skaters); the top two finishers from both heats advance to the "A" final, while the bottom two go on to skate in the "B" final. The finishing order of the four skaters in the "A" final determine who gets the medals, while the "B" final determines who finishes fifth through eighth. 

The format for the 1500m is a little different—most notably, there's no quarterfinal round because the heats are larger, and there are 36 competitors rather than 32. All 36 skate in the first round, where they're separated into six heats of six skaters each. The top three skaters from each heat (total of 18) advance to the finals, where the 18 remaining skaters are divided into three heats of six skaters each. The top two skaters from each of those three heats (six skaters total) advance to the "A" final, while the third and fourth place finishers from the three heats move to the "B" final. The "A" final is one race of six skaters to determine the medal winners and the fourth through sixth place finishers, while the "B" final determines who finishes seventh through 12th. 

In both formats, it is possible for someone from the "B" final to win a medal. That would happen if enough skaters from the "A" final are disqualified. 

In both the men's (5000m) and women's (3000m) relays, only eight teams of four skaters each (one team per nation) qualify. In the first round, there are two heats with four teams each, with the top two teams advancing to "A" final and the bottom two moving to the "B" final. The top three teams in the "A" final receive medals. Again, it is possible for a nation from the "B" final to win a medal if enough teams from the "A" final are disqualified. 

Is the U.S. any good?

Oh yeah. In recent history, the United States, Korea, Canada and Russia have been the most successful nations on the short track. The U.S. relay teams should contend for medals in PyeongChang—the men's 5000m team of J.R. Celeski, John-Henry Krueger, Keith Carroll Jr. and Thomas Hong set the world record (6:29:052) at a World Cup event in Shanghai on Nov. 12.

Why are so many skaters wearing blue?

Because blue is scientifically the fastest color (yes, you just read "fastest" color). In a sport where the finishes are often decided by thousandths of a second, competitors are always looking for any edge they can get. At Sochi in 2014, the U.S. team wore a suit made of a dimpled, vented material that Lockheed Martin Aeronautics helped design. The team underperformed, so that suit will not be seen again any time soon. 

This go around, there's a consensus within the speed skating world that blue is the fastest color. This doesn't make too much of a difference for skaters from South Korea and the United States, countries that historically have worn blue. But competitors from Germany and even Norway, a country synonymous with the color red, have also worn blue in different events this year. This whole blue phenomenon could well be a placebo effect, but even if a skater's belief that he's faster is not supported by empirical evidence, that belief could give him a slight edge. And in the Olympics, that's what it's all about.