/ 10 February 2014

Sochi Olympics: What to look out for as speedskating starts

Ready for some roller derby on ice? Short track speedskating starts on Monday at the Sochi Olympics
Ready for some roller derby on ice? Short track speedskating starts on Monday at the Sochi Olympics

Ready for some roller derby on ice? Short track speedskating starts on Monday at the Sochi Olympics, promising thrills, chills and spills.

The wild sport can be counted on for controversy as skaters make their way through heats, semifinals and finals in three individual events each for men and women, and relays for both.

It's not unusual for disqualifications to occur, most often for impeding, which could mean pushing, blocking or otherwise causing a problem for another skater.

Apolo Anton Ohno, the sport's biggest star from the last three Winter Olympics, is retired but he'll be on the sidelines describing the action as a US TV commentator.

Viktor Ahn of Russia will enjoy home-ice advantage at the 12 000-seat Iceberg Skating Palace, while Charles Hamelin of Canada and South Korea's always powerful team figure to dominate on the men's side.

Here are five things to watch for on the first day of short-track speedskating:

RUSSIAN HOPES: Ahn will try to win Russia's first Olympic medal in short track. Born Ahn Hyun-soo in South Korea, he was given Russian citizenship in 2011, having decided to change his national allegiance after not qualifying for the 2010 Winter Olympics. He competed for South Korea in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics. He chose Viktor as his new name after Viktor Tsoi, a rock singer with Korean and Russian roots. Ahn qualified for all three individual events in Sochi and the 5 000 relay.

"Viktor is as close to perfecting the sport as you humanly possibly can," American skater Eddy Alvarez said. "We always try and imitate him because that's as good as it gets."

OH CANADA: Charles Hamelin, a two-time gold medalist four years ago in Vancouver, is a medal threat in the first of his three individual events. He'll be skating against his younger brother, Francois, in the 1 500. Their father, Yves, is a coach of the Canadian national team. Charles's girlfriend is Marianne St-Gelais, who'll be skating in the 500 heats on Monday.

AMERICAN CHANCES: JR Celski has taken over leadership of the US team since Ohno's retirement following the Vancouver Games. He'll try to improve on his bronze medal finish of four years ago in the 1 500. Alvarez, the first Cuban-American male to make a US Olympic speedskating team, skates the first of three individual races in the 1 500.

Ohno is in Sochi working as a TV commentator and has dropped in on a few of the US practises. "I was kind of having a little panic attack," Alvarez said. "He was like, 'Don't worry.' He's kind of a side coach, a little motivational coach."

ICE ICE BABY: Short track shares the same ice with figure skating at the Olympics. And that's not necessarily a good thing for the speedskaters, especially at sea level in Sochi's warmer climate.

"It's not the kind of ice we like to skate on," Alvarez said. "We like very thin, hard ice. This is actually really thick ice that has a lot of rebound for them, not for us. To us, it kind of feels mushy out there. We come here and we feel like we're 20 pounds heavier."

OTHER EVENTS: The women's 500 heats get underway as well on Monday, as does the women's 3 000 relay semifinals. The 500 will be without two-time Olympic champion Wang Meng of China. She broke her ankle in training last month and didn't recover in time to compete in Sochi. Countrywoman Fan Kexin will be a medal contender.

St-Gelais of Canada and Arianna Fontana of Italy could get on the podium four years after taking silver and bronze at Vancouver. Park Seung-hi of South Korea will try to win her country's first gold in the women's 500, the only short track event the Koreans have never won at the Olympics.

The women's 3 000 relay was controversial in Vancouver, with South Korea finishing first but getting disqualified for impeding a Chinese skater. For the first time since 1992, the US didn't qualify a team for the relay. – Sapa-AP