Embrace the chaos: Wild short-track nights are a crowd pleaser


GANGNEUNG, South Korea _ Less than five seconds into the first women’s 500-meter quarterfinal, one skater slammed into the wall and another was about to be disqualified.

In the very next race, a wipeout right before the finish meant Canada’s Kim Boutin slid to a second-place finish on her backside.

One race was so close that a winner wasn’t immediately listed and a photo finish was called. Turns out the Netherlands’ Yara van Kerkhof beat Great Britian’s Elise Christie by .002 of a second.

Welcome to the world of short-track speedskating, where the action’s fast, the music’s loud and 11-year-old American fan Sean Patrick O’Connor got exactly what he wanted.

“The crashes!” he said.

The O’Connor family – including Pat, Joan, Justin, Sean Patrick and six-year-old Evan Anthony – wanted to see a handful of sports this February when they came to the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Besides hockey, the short track was high on their list.

It’s easy to see why. The demolition derby of the Winter Olympics is a crowd pleaser and immensely popular in South Korea. Gangneung Ice Arena was almost completely filled on Tuesday night and almost every single race – 17 in all – was an absolute nail-biter.

The action was particularly intense when South Korean skaters were on the track. With techno or rock music blaring in the background, the rise and fall of cheers washed over the arena and at times could be deafening.

South Korean Choi Min-Jeong was arguably the biggest fan favorite, with dozens of fans dressed in similar green shirts who cheered her every move.

The highlight of the night might have been the men’s 5,000-meter relay race, which is essentially total chaos for 45 laps and nearly seven minutes. There are 16 skaters (four for each country) on the ice, with only four actually racing at one time.

There’s no baton to exchange when it’s time to switch skaters, they just shove each other in the back. While four are racing, the other 12 are also skating on the inside or outside of the track and fans go into an almost hypnotic trance while watching the constant motion, shoving, passing and, yes, crashing.

In what initially seemed like a fitting ending to the night, the 500-meter women’s final was spectacular with Choi and Italy’s Arianna Fontana fighting to a photo finish. 

It looked like Choi would still win the silver until she was penalized for impeding Boutin earlier in the race and finished in fifth. The shocked crowd groaned when the ruling was announced.

It wasn’t the storybook ending the South Korean fans were hoping to watch. But – as usual – nobody left the short track without being entertained.

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