Back in 2014 Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu – then just 19 – became the youngest winner of the men’s Olympic figure skating competition since 1948. He had produced an exhilarating performance in Sochi and the expectation is that, when next year’s Games come around in PyeongChang, there will be similar exploits to savour.
“The level of skating that the top men exhibit is quite extraordinary,” explains Jan Dijkema, president of the International Skating Union. “They push the sport as far as they can go. This creates a lot of excitement and makes the events highly competitive – and the same goes for all of our competitions across all categories, male and female.”
The Gangneung Ice Arena, which seats 12,000, has earned plenty of plaudits for its readiness to host a top-class sporting spectacle.
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“The arena held its first test event in December,” Dijkema recalls. “The building is quite stunning, and the main rink and practice track are very well prepared, with a good layout. The test events are very important as they mean that equipment like refrigeration systems, lights and sound can be tested.
“The venue will be shared between figure skating and short track speed skating, meaning that the infrastructure has to be adequate for both disciplines, and that is a challenge in itself. The ice temperature is different for each discipline and therefore the cooling system has to be optimal. Special homologated padding has to be installed for short track, while the music system for figure skating has to be adequate.”
The building is quite stunning, and the main rink and practice track are very well prepared, with a good layout.Jan Dijkema ISU President
There is also good news about the Gangneung Speed Skating Oval, which holds 8,000 spectators and will be used by the long track events. “The Oval was tested during the ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships in February,” Dijkema says. “The single distances is a special competition and the format at the championships was the same as it will be at the Games – so nobody wanted to miss out and the skaters gave their all.”
It has, as ever, been a high-quality season across all disciplines so far with thrilling events still to come. Fans are are already checking who can be expected to shine in PyeongChang.
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For Dijkema, the most powerful nations in short track speed skating are the Republic of Korea, China and Canada. “But the public should also keep their eyes on the Hungarian, Dutch and British squads, who have been doing well.
“In speed skating the Netherlands will be the main nation to beat – however, skaters from many other countries , perhaps even New Zealand, will be eyeing up the podium.”
Then of course there is Hanyu, who leads a clutch of enthralling performers in his category. “Like in every sport, stars are important,” Dijkema says. “Hanyu is not only popular with fans; he is also part of a group of skaters that push the boundaries of figure skating. Such skaters create visibility for our sport, which is what every sport wants to achieve.”
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Compared to Sochi 2014 a new ISU event will take a place on the Olympic programme in PyeongChang –the speed skating mass start competition. That will be unmissable and Dijkema also recommends that anyone new to the sport casts their eye over the short track events. “People should watch short track – the atmosphere within the arena is usually electric and the races are intense and action packed,” he says.
When asked about the most exciting prospect at PyeongChang 2018, though, Dijkema’s answer is simple. “The competition itself!” he says. “It is always exciting to see who will be on the podium and witness both the success of familiar athletes and the breakthrough of a new generation.”