The Athletic Arms Race; Building the Elite Athlete; Scientific American Presents; by Mike May; 6 Page(s)
For decades, world records in speed skating were broken by tiny increments, sometimes only one or two hundredths of a second. Suddenly, in 1997, records plummeted by full tenths of a second at a time. Even more startling, virtually unknown skaters were crushing the favorites. The reason: the clap skate. This new piece of equipment carved time off every lap. The skate caused an avalanche of tumbling records at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. In the first round of the men's 500 meters, Italian Ermanno Ioriatti set an Olympic record. A few minutes later American Casey FitzRandolph broke Ioriatti's record. Next, Canadian Kevin Overland surpassed FitzRandolph. Finally, Japan's Hiroyasu Shimizu beat Overland. In the men's 5,000 meters, the world record fell three times in less than half an hour.
Spectators could actually hear speed skating change. A traditional skate-a steel blade attached rigidly to a boot's toe and heel-makes a swooshing sound with each stride across the ice. But a passing clap skate creates a rhythmic clatter. The key change is a springloaded hinge that connects the blade to the boot's toe. Beneath the heel, the blade is free to swing away from the boot. When a skater's heel begins to lift up at the end of a stroke, the hinge lets the back of the blade stay on the ice until the foot is raised high. The clap sound comes at the very end of the stroke, when the rear part of the blade snaps back into place. By keeping the blade on the ice longer, a skater gets more push for each stroke, propelling him or her faster. The concept of clap skates had been around for nearly a century, but it made its debut among top skaters at Nagano, spurred on by a host of athletes and scientists from the Faculty of Human Movement Sciences at Free University Amsterdam.