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Speed Skating at the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Games

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Host City: Lake Placid, United States
Date Started: February 4, 1932
Date Finished: February 8, 1932
Events: 4

Participants: 31 (31 men and 0 women) from 6 countries
Youngest Participant: CAN Herb Flack (18 years, 221 days)
Oldest Participant: JPN Tomeju Uruma (29 years, 58 days)
Most Medals (Athlete): 4 athletes with 2 medals
Most Medals (Country): USA United States and CAN Canada (5 medals)


Lake Placid had hosted its first major speed skating competition in 1919, with the Eastern Outdoor Championships, won by local skater Charlie Jewtraw, who went on to become Olympic Champion in the 500 m at the inaugural Winter Olympics in 1924. Since then, many records had been set on the ice of the town’s Mirror Lake. For the 1932 Games, a $150,000 stadium was built with a capacity of 5,000. A hockey rink was placed in the centre of the track, and matches were played between and during skating races.

Only six countries entered the speed skating events: Canada, Finland, Japan, Norway, Sweden and the host nation. However, the economic depression was not the only reason for the small number of participants. On 25 May 1931, the International Skating Union (ISU) had approved the use of the North American "pack style" system for international tournaments, as had been proposed by the American and Canadian federations. This style featured competitors starting in small groups, not unlike modern-day short-track speed skating. This meant races were decided on tactics, rather than time alone, as is common in the "Continental" style.

Quintuple Olympic Champion and reigning World Champion [Clas Thunberg] had experienced the North American rules first hand in 1926, and knew the North American tactics were superior. According to his auto-biography, he sent a private letter to the Norwegian federation, suggesting an alliance, but the Norwegians rejected this. (It should be pointed out, that Thunberg's biography was entitled Alone against all of Norway.) He then decided to stay away from Lake Placid, too. Both Sweden and Finland eventually sent only a single skater, compared to four skaters from Japan, which made its Olympic speed skating debut. The Dutch federation decided not to send a delegation because they did not think their skaters would stand a chance under the mass-start rules. The Norwegians did go, and even held special trials in the North American format. In the 10000 m race, [Ivar Ballangrud] skated 16:46.4, which was well below the current World Record of 17:17.4.

Thunberg's fear of North American domination proved correct, as US skaters won all four events, and only two medals were not taken by Americans or Canadians. In addition, controversy surrounded the events. Obstructions and violations of the rules were noted in all events, culminating in a four-country protest before the start of the 10000 m. During that competition, the results of the heats were annulled and eventually re-skated. European skaters and media spoke of a farcical affair, all skating events being decided in the last laps, regardless of the distance. The New York Times commented:

> "It was Mark Twain who once remarked that 'people often complain about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it'. In like fashion, the Europeans have been complaining about the American style of speed skating, but no one has offered a real solution."

Two-fold Olympic Champion and local boy [Jack Shea] suggested that a compromise might be reached by conducting the sport in several lanes, like in athletics. Nothing ever came of his suggestion.

Two weeks after the Olympic skating races, the World Championships were held at the same rink. In the absence of Olympic champions Shea and [Jaffee], the Norwegians won all four individual races and the first three overall places, while the North Americans were well down in the standings. At the next ISU congress, the use of North American rules in international competitions was removed from the rule book.

Amidst all the controversy, female skaters made their Olympic debut. Three events for women had been added to the program as demonstration events, following the ISU's 1931 recognition of female skating records over 500, 1000 and 1500 m. Only American and Canadian women participated, but the races were of a high level. Winners [Jean Wilson], [Elizabeth Dubois] and [Kit Klein] posted times faster than the active World Records. Because these events were held in pack style, their times were never recognised as records. There were 10 female competitors in the events, five from Canada and five from the United States. Women would not compete in Olympic speedskating again until 1960, when it became a full medal sport.