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Olympic Preview: Salt Lake Oval - 2001-11-05

The Utah Olympic Oval will host the long-track speed-skating events during the 2002 Salt Lake City winter games. This new facility is quickly earning a reputation for having perhaps the fastest ice in the world.

The Utah Olympic Oval, located in the Salt Lake City suburb of Kearns, opened its doors for a test run when it held the World Speedskating Championships last March. The skaters had a tough time finding any flaws with the cozy 65-hundred seat venue.

Five world records, 57 national records and 127 personal records were set. The world records, set in the men's 500 and 1,000 meters as well as the women's 500, 1,000 and 5,000 meters, were something that the Oval's Building Operations Manager Mark Norman had hoped for all along. "Everybody wants to see a world record in their building and to consistently get them is a great thing," he says. "So I think any person that is going to build one of these facilities hopes for a world record."

The Olympic Oval in Calgary, Alberta has long been known for producing the fastest times in the world. To Norman's delight, the skaters are already comparing the Utah Olympic Oval to Calgary's. "They love it. They love the natural light in the facility and obviously they love the ice. It is fast," he says. "They all mention it has a very similar feel to Calgary, which prior to us was the fastest ice in the world. We hope to dethrone them of that, and we have got some pretty good statistics behind us so far to do that."

One of those skaters impressed with the Oval is star Canadian speedskater Jeremy Wotherspoon. All it took was one showing in Utah for Wotherspoon to break the world record in the one-thousand meters and he has nothing but high hopes for the Olympics. "I like it a lot because it is very similar to where I train in Calgary. A lot of the ice is a similar speed. For our team, it is very promising, very motivating," says Mr. Wotherspoon. "I am looking forward to doing quite well next year at the Olympics."

Calgary had been the site of world records in eight of the 10 speed-skating events until the five records were broken in Utah. Calgary and Utah now combine for world records in nine events.

Mark Norman sees the altitude in Kearns, which at 1,425 meters is about 335-meters higher than in Calgary, as a major advantage to the skaters. "The altitude definitely helps. There is a lot less oxygen available in the air. When we are freezing ice, oxygen makes for a less dense surface," he says. "So when the ice making comes up, we have a lot less oxygen in the ice here than they do in Calgary or other places. And that means a denser surface, which also gives us a more consistent temperature and faster ice."

The altitude alone cannot guarantee fast times. The building officials are attempting to find the exact balance between ice temperature and air temperature that will deliver the best times. Norman says that the temperatures to be used during the February Olympics have not been finalized.

As hard as it is to imagine, the times could be even faster at the Winter Games. Nick Thometz, the Utah Olympic Oval Director and three-time Olympian, expressed his optimism during the March World Championships. He said that at the World Championships, several events are held on the same day.

At the Olympics, the Oval will be easier to manage, and the times should be faster because the ice can be specially tailored for the one event held each day. "You have got one event per day and you have got roughly a 24-hour period in between that you can adjust the building temperature, the ice temperature, etcetera, to match what the distance is you are trying to do," says Mr. Thometz. "Like today and yesterday between doing a 500 [meters] and a 5,000 [meters] are two extreme races in the same way a 1,000 (meters) and a 10,000 [meters] are in one day. You're trying to balance between ice that is gonna work for both groups as opposed to dedicating it for one or the other, which you can do at games [Olympics] time."

The American team has an edge on the rest of the world since it has been training at the Utah Olympic Oval - an indoor facility - throughout the year. But according to Thometz, several other teams, including Germany, China, Korea, and Canada, have been arranging ice time to better familiarize themselves with the Oval before the winter games.

Gunther Schumacher, the director of the German speed skating association, said that while his team lacks experience in Utah, the World Championships left his speed skaters more than pleased with the venue. "Here in Salt Lake City we do not have much experience because it was the first time that we were present here. But, I think the skaters have felt from the first moment a good feeling for the ice," he says. "The atmosphere - they like it. They have a lot of fun to skate here. And now after the first competitions they can say okay, that is good for the Olympics, the first experiences are perfect."

There is still some fine-tuning to do at the oval before the Olympics. But when February rolls around, the speed skaters will not just be striving for medals at the Utah Olympic Oval, they will be going for world records.