Speedskating is a sport in which the object is to skate around an oval ice track for various, defined distances in as quick a time as possible. Athletes' times are often separated by only a few hundredths of a second. The course can be either a long course 400-m oval (the same dimensions and shape as is used in track and field competitions) or a short course of 200 or 250 m. The latter course can be accommodated on a conventional ice hockey surface.

The sport can be carried out on ice ovals that are located outdoors or indoors. For competitions such as the World Championships and the Winter Olympics, all speedskating events are held indoors, where the ice temperature can be precisely controlled and where wind is not an issue.

Long course speedskating has a lengthy competitive history. The first recorded event took place in Oslo, Norway, in 1863. The sport's governing body, The International Skating Union (ISU), was formed in the nineteenth century, and has been the organizer of world championships since 1893.

Short course (or short track) speedskating also has a long history. Originally conducted as a race with a mass start by a larger group of participants, this type of speedskating made its Olympic debut at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics. The ISU officially adopted the short course version as a competitive sport in 1967; international competition began in 1976, and the first world championships were held in 1981. The event became a demonstration sport at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, where its combination of speed and ever-present danger of crashes immediately proved to be a crowd and broadcast favorite. By the next Olympics, short course speedskating had become a medal event.

The standard 400 m long course speedskating oval consists of two lanes. The turns at either end of the course have a diameter of 54-56 yd (50-52 m). Even though athletes race against the clock instead of one another, each race in a speedskating competition involves two skaters. Typically, the skater who begins the race in the inside lane wears an arm band of a designated color, while the skater who begins in the outside lane wears a differently colored arm band. To ensure that each covers the same amount of distance each lap of the oval, the skaters must cross from their starting lane to the other lane at a defined point in the race (the first straightaway after the first turn).

Each skater is allowed one false start (when the skater begins the forward motion before the starting signal has been given). If the athlete incurs another false start in the same race, he or she is disqualified from the competition for that distance. Other reasons for disqualification include entering the adjacent lane other than in the designated crossover zone, not changing lanes, and interfering with the other skater during the lane change.

Long course speedskating distances most often include sprints of 500 and 1,000 m, where an explosive start and quickness throughout the race are paramount (elite athletes can exceed 37 mph/60 km/h), to longer distances (1,500, 5,000, and 10,000 m) where the ability to maintain form and a steady pace are keys to success. Women may also participate in a 3,000-m event. Typically, the sprint events are run as two races, with the time for each race tallied to produce the overall time. Pursuit races—where teams of skaters compete, each skater alternately assuming the lead for a time, in an effort to catch up to another team—can also be run, particularly in short course competitions. All races are run in the counterclockwise direction.

In both the long and (especially) short course competitions, falls can occur. When skaters fall, they can get up and continue the race, although the added time will almost certainly eliminate them from the medal podium. If a fall in a long course event disrupts the other competitor, the race can be appealed and run over again.

Speedskating is an aerodynamic event. Skaters wear tight-fitting lycra suits that include hoods to allow them to move as quickly and efficiently as possible through the air. The suits must follow the natural contours of the body. Many skaters wear goggles or glasses to prevent their eyes from watering during a race. Posture is also important. Racers adopt a hunched position to cut down on wind resistance and increase the power of the leg muscles applied to each stride and, in longer races, hold the inside arm behind the back and rhythmically swing the outside arm to make movement as efficient as possible. Swinging the arm also helps a skater maintain balance and direction through the turns.

Competitors at the 1000-m final during the U.S. Short Track Speedskating Championships, 2005.

Another distinctive speedskating gear is the long-bladed skate. The 15-17 in (38-45 cm) blade is much longer than the boot, providing more surface to dig into the ice and power the athlete forward (the blade is sharpened to be flat to allow for a long gliding stride, in contrast to hockey skates, which have two edges on the underside of the blade to assist in rapid stopping and direction change). The blade length comes at a cost; turns need to be carefully executed so that a skate blade does not catch as one foot is crossed over the other.

Until the mid-1990s, the boot was designed with the blade fixed to the underside of the boot along its entire length. Then, a new design was introduced, in which the blade is fixed to the boot only near the toe. This hinged design allows the boot to flex forward while still maintaining the blade in contact with the ice. As the foot moves downward after a skating stroke, the blade snaps back into position. The distinctive sound had given the "clap skate" its name.

Both designs are available for use, depending on an athlete's preference. The clap skate is used by the majority of competitors in longer distance events, where the added assist from the blade becomes important during the tiring late stages of a race.

Elite speedskaters will have their skates custom built to the dimensions of their feet. Some skate barefoot, in an effort to maximize their control.

Speedskating was long dominated by European and Canadian athletes. However, the sport is now truly international, with elite competitors from around the globe attaining world-class performances. A noteworthy American performance occurred at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, when Eric Heiden won gold in all five of the men's events.

SEE ALSO Figure skating, ice.