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Anyone who’s seen a relay race in short-track speed skating will agree it’s a contender for the Games’ most barmy spectacle.
The semi-finals of the men’s 5,000m relay were held at Turin’s Palavela on Wednesday night. The television cameras tend to focus on the lead skaters, so only if you’re actually there can you appreciate the utter mayhem.
There were four teams of four men in each race, so on the small rink that is also used for figure skating there were 16 skaters milling around before the start. They were accompanied by two smartly-dressed judges in blazers, and on skates.
Once the 45-lap race starts, each skater goes for about a lap and a half round the perimeter of the rink, which takes no more than a few seconds. There is no rule as to when the next teammate takes over but at some point one pops out from the middle area, which is cordoned off by little black markers. He is shoved in the back by the departing skater and heads off round the rink.
After about two handovers it is impossible to know what is going on. By then the skaters are coming hither and thither. Four men are skating. Four have just finished and are coasting around the rink, not in the cordoned-off part and not in the way of the current racers. In the middle, four teammates are shadowing the current racers closely, in case the handover has to be early on account of a fall or collision. The last racers are just milling about in the middle, but soon rotate into the shadowing position.
It looks a little like a fast version of skating in New York’s Central Park, including the aggressive attitude. I kept waiting for the aged aunt in a fur coat to tentatively step out from the side and start half skating, half walking in the opposite direction to everyone else while holding on to her hat with one hand.
After another couple of handovers, one or two of the teams might be half a lap ahead, adding to the general impression of anarchy. The scoreboard ticks down the laps remaining for each team, but does not re-order the list of teams to account for who is in the lead.
To make matters more interesting, the skaters all have numbers on their helmets, but there is no indication on the scoreboard as to what numbers correspond to which team. And the team clothing, which rarely includes anything as useful as the team name, can look similar. You could be cheering for the Italians for 20-odd laps only to find out they’re Moldovan.
Even a venue official when quizzed said: “I don’t think the presentation’s helpful.”
It was good to see the venue almost filled to its 8,300 capacity, after many empty seats at other sites. The Palavela is a new place built under the previous building’s old roof, which was preserved because it is an architectural landmark of concrete in the shape of a sail. You might remember Michael Caine’s minis from The Italian Job driving on it.
And the crowd were noisy, at least at the start, until they settled back slack-jawed and with quizzical expressions on their faces.
There are just too many people for there not to be collisions. And there are always disqualifications too, for causing unavoidable collisions, or for skating the wrong way in a fur coat. But the disqualifications aren’t announced until after the race, so quite often what you have just seen turns out to bear no resemblance to the result.
The carnage is so complete and so often that events have to hold two finals, an A race and a B race. The reason for this is that if in the A final two people or teams are disqualified then the bronze medal will go to the winner of the B race. In theory all four skaters or teams could be disqualified, followed by three in the B race. Then the guy at the back of the last race, who put on his skates backwards and raced like Carmen Miranda with a basket of fruit on his head will walk off with a gold medal. Something a bit like that happened at the last Olympics to a very grateful Australian called Steven Bradbury.
In the second semi this week, the Italians came fourth. They collided with the Japanese early on and then wandered absently around the rink for another 30 or so laps. But the Japanese team, which came third and had not qualified anyway, were ruled to have been at fault for the collision, meaning Italy advanced to the final after all.
Now that will be a race. Since four teams advanced legitimately, the Italians are added to the numbers, making it five in the final. Twenty skaters then. And the winner to be determined by lots.