Skating around in circles ain't exactly rocket science. Or is it?
When word got out that the Dutch had come up with the clapskate,
the first major technological innovation to hit speed skating
this century, U.S. Speedskating, the sport's national governing
body, got a call from NASA offering the use of its engineers,
facilities--anything to help out. The skating federation has yet
to take the space agency up on its offer, but NASA's interest
underscores the extent to which the clapskate has turned the
sport on its ear.
Developed at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, the
clapskate--so called because of the clap-clap noise it makes--is
a standard skating boot with a blade that's hinged at the toe.
It allows skaters to get maximum propulsion by keeping the blade
on the ice as they fully extend their knee and ankle with each
stride. Dutch women began using the skates in competition in
1996 and in short order were rewriting the record book. That had
members of the U.S. team, which has had the skates only since
last summer, coming unhinged. U.S. Speedskating president Bill
Cushman likened using clapskates to playing baseball with a
corked bat, but in Nagano every American will be wearing them.
Among the seven world records to tumble last year was Bonnie
Blair's 500-meter mark, which Canadian clapper Catriona LeMay
Doan reduced from 38.69 seconds to 37.55. "Records are made to
be broken," says Blair, the recently retired five-time Olympic
gold medalist, "but you like to see them broken on the same,
level playing field. It's not that I'm not for change, but
technology is taking over. I liked it better when it was a pure
sport, about talent and technique and strength, not what kind of
skate you had."