The Gangneung Oval was put through its paces as the 2017 World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships were staged in Gangneung, doubling up as the official test event for next year’s Olympic Winter Games.
A total of 194 skaters from 24 countries, including a powerhouse Dutch team that featured Olympic champions Sven Kramer and Ireen Wüst, took part in the four-day competition. And they served up some spectacular contests and lightning fast times, leaving both athletes and organisers delighted with the state of the venue.
“The speed skating championships this week have been very popular with our spectators and we have heard wonderful comments from the athletes competing too," said POCOG President Hee-beom Lee.
“Particularly on the quality of the ice, so that is a great testament to our venue team who have been working hard to get everything ready. The ice has been in such good condition we have all enjoyed watching many individual records being broken and I hope we see more of the same in a year's time.”
Four-time Olympic champion Wüst, who won the women's 3,000m, praised the work done by the venue staff. “The ice meister did a good job and I could skate really fast," she added. " Gangneung is a really nice city and I look forward to coming back next year.”
Wüst and her Dutch compatriots scooped eight gold medals in total, though they didn’t have it all their own way. Heather Bergsma of the USA finished the championships with three medals, winning the women’s 1,000m and 1,500m, and a bronze in the mass start, which is due to make its Olympic debut at PyeongChang 2018.
A day after winning the 1000m, Bergsma outdueled Wüst in the final pair of the 1,500m. Bergsma took bronze in the mass start, a new Olympic event where skaters race in a pack rather than in pairings. The mass start is similar to short track speed skating, except on a larger oval and at a longer distance (16 laps). And to the delight of the home crowd, victory in the women’s event went to Bo-Reum Kim who gave the Republic of Korea their only gold of the championships in a time of 8 mins 0.79 secs.
The USA’s Joey Mantia saw off his old rival Alexis Contin of France to win the men’s mass start, 20 years after they had first shared a podium in a junior inline competition. Joining them on the podium was former short track champion Oliver Jean, who had made the transition to long track once he heard mass start was going to be added to the Olympic programme.
Wüst, the star of the speed skating track at Sochi 2014, won the opening gold of the championships, the women’s 3,000m title. Wüst had to be at her fastest to see off reigning champion Martina Sáblíková of the Czech Republic. Between them the two have won the last three Olympic titles over the distance and they served up a dramatic contest that will whet the appetite for their next Olympic showdown. Wüst’s compatriot Kramer meanwhile claimed his eighth 5,000m title, while Peter Michael made history for New Zealand, as he took the bronze to become his country’s first ever speed skating medallist at the Worlds.
Kramer held off his compatriot and arch rival Jorrit Bergsma after a neck-and-neck battle that could have gone either way. He said there was still plenty of hard work to do ahead of the 2018 Games, where he has big ambitions. “365 days is far away. Of course it’s my goal, not only the 5000m, but also the 10,000m, the Team Pursuit and maybe a bonus 1500m.”
Meanwhile Michael was thrilled just to make the podium. “It’s going to be an endless journey on the ice and everything is possible. I never put a limit on anything.”
On day two, Japan’s Nao Kodaira won the women’s 500m to become the first Japanese female skater to take individual gold in the history of the World Single Distance Championships. Kodaira’s victory was no real surprise. The 31-year-old had won all six 500m races she skated in the World Cup this year. The home crowd were given a boost as Sang-Hwa Lee produced a strong performance to take silver.
Dutchman Jan Smeekens, a silver medallist at Sochi 2014, grabbed a long-awaited gold in the men’s 500m. Winning his first career World title in Gangneung meant a lot to the 29-year-old Dutchman. “Of course, I had a few flashbacks, that makes this more emotional. I’ve always said that I wanted to win a major title before my thirtieth birthday, which is tomorrow. So yes, I’ll definitely celebrate this one.”
Netherlands capped off a great day as they retained their titles in both the men’s and women’s team pursuit events. New Zealand pulled off another surprise, as their men finished second, ahead of Norway.
On day three, Martina Sáblíková won her ninth consecutive 5,000m title, while Dutchman Kjeld Nuis took his maiden world title in the men’s 1.000m, and the USA’s Heather Bergsma took gold in the women’s 1000m. Meanwhile Sven Kramer closed the day with another gold, this time in the men’s 10,000m.
For Nuis, it was an emotional moment. “On the podium I just thought: don’t cry, don’t cry,” he said. “As a little kid I saw Rintje Ritsma on the podium with the national anthem, and now it’s played for me, that’s super.”And he doubled his delight the following day with another gold in the men’s 1,500m, seeing off the challenges of Russia’s Denis Yuskov and seasoned compatriot Kramer.