Sunday, February 5, 2012

Emotions pure on the rocks – women’s speed skating team pursuit during the 2010 Winter Olympics

Only few sports events have left a lasting impression on my. One of them was the women’s speed skating team pursuit competition during the 2010 Winter Olympics. A drama in two acts.

To set the scene: a team of three skaters starts simultaneously and all three of them have to cross the finish line for the clock to stop, so a team is only as good as its weakest link. Typically, the women skate in a line using a rotation system to constantly replace the leader of the line.  Success depends on coordination, cooperation and synchronization.

The protagonists: the German women's speed skating team including Anni Friesinger, one of the leading German skaters of her time. She had knee problems in 2010, however, and was not at the top of her game.

Act I – The semifinal

In the semifinal, the German women are competing against the US team.  The race is going well for the German team, they are ahead; but during the final lap Anni Friesinger suddenly has problems keeping up. She shortly loses her balance, falls behind and then – possibly in an attempt to catch up – missteps and falls. She knows that she needs to get a body part – any body part in fact – somehow over the finish line. So while she is gliding over the ice on her belly, making use of the momentum, she throws her leg forward to gain a few fractions of a second. While still gliding over the ice on her belly she starts pummeling the ice with her fists – utterly exhausted, frustrated and disappointed. Eventually, she looks up at the board with the results. And at that very moment, her face and entire demeanor changes completely. In spite of her fall, the German team has won by a tiny margin and will go through to the finals. This moment, when Anni Friesinger’s emotions change from extreme disappointment to outright joy is for me the most memorable moment of the 2010 Olympics.

Act II – The final

In the final, the German team is competing against the Japanese team. The Japanese had a very strong performance that year, clearly training to have close to perfect team interactions during the race. The women are all very similar in height, dressed in futuristic-looking gold-black suits, skating with precision and accuracy close to perfection like a well-oiled machine. The German team (this time without Anni Friesinger) is doing well, but appears just slightly less coherent. They lose a little bit of time from the Japanese in every round, the gap reaches over 1.5 seconds at some point. And then something happens. It is as if a switch has been turned and the German skaters start to accelerate. They gain several tenths of seconds per round, getting closer and closer to the Japanese, who are still leading by a considerable margin. It is evident that the Germans will eventually catch up with the Japanese, but, will they do so on time? Have they started to accelerate too late? When both teams cross the finish line, it is at first not clear who the winner is. And then the official result comes out. The German team has won by 3 hundredths of a second. No one cheers louder than Anni Friesinger.

This was one of the most amazing sport events I have witnessed. Would be worthwhile to turn into a movie. On second thought, maybe not. In reality, it’s big emotions, in fiction, it would be unbearable kitsch.

(semi-final at 0:41, there are several re-runs of Anni Friesinger’s fall and glide after the end of the race, final at 1:40)

No comments:

Post a Comment