Host City: Nagano, Japan
Date Started: February 8, 1998
Date Finished: February 14, 1998
Participants: 171 (92 men and 79 women) from 25 countries
Youngest Participant: Song Li (16 years, 339 days)
Oldest Participant: Susan Massitti (34 years, 60 days)
Most Medals (Athlete): Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann-Kleemann and Rintje Ritsma (3 medals)
Most Medals (Country): Netherlands (11 medals)
The main speed skating story of the 1998 Olympics was not about an athlete, but about the material. Starting with the 1996-97 season, a new type of skate had been introduced in the sport. The first designs of clap skates, where the blade is hinged on the front of the shoe, date from the 19th century, but was re-invented by Gerrit Jan van Ingen Schenau in 1980. According to him, the skate was faster than normal skates, due to its prolonged contact with the ice.
But Van Ingen Schenau had a hard time “selling” his skate to Dutch skaters, who laughed at his skate. Even when the Dutch national women’s team started using them in the 1996-97 season, most skaters still considered them only useful for “technically inferior” skaters. But as Dutch women were successful that season, more and more skaters started using the new skate. At the start of the Olympic season, all of the top skaters had transferred, and in Nagano, only the North Koreans would still use the old fixed skate.
Shortly before the Games, the Dutch team announced another technological improvement. Their suits were equipped with aerodynamic “strips”, which were said to give and advantage of up to one second per lap. Other countries appealed to the ISU to declare the strips illegal, but the governing body approved them just before the Games, leaving other countries to hastily copy the Dutch invention, some even by taping hand-made strips to their suits.
Due to the new material (especially the skates, the strips were not as widely used after the Olympics), all World Records were broken during the Olympic season, including many at the Olympics themselves. Not all records proved very future-proof, and many of them were broken already during the World Single Distance Championships in Calgary after the Games.
Another change occurred in the rules. The 500 m events were now conducted in two runs, as it had been statistically proven that skaters starting in the inner lane and finishing in the outer had an advantage. To cancel this out, all 500 m competitions since 1996 have been carried out in two runs, with each skater starting once in the inner lane and outer lane. The fastest total time of two runs decides the outcome.
The rink for the 1998 speed skating events was the M-Wave, named for its shape, which was Japan’s first indoor speed skating venue. The Nagano prefecture had been a traditional winter sports region, and several speed skating rinks were situated in the area prior to the Games. The best known of these had been at Karuizawa, having hosted the World Allround Championships in 1963, and the World Sprint Championships in 1986.
Dutch skaters were most successful at the Nagano Olympics, winning five of the 10 available titles, with Gianni Romme and Marianne Timmer each taking two victories. Belgium and Kazakhstan won their first ever Olympic speed skating medals, although Bart Veldkamp had previously medaled for the Netherlands. Two countries made their Olympic speed skating début: Portugal and New Zealand.