Saturday, February 15, 2014

OLYMPICS, DAY 8: All Aboard The Fail Train

The United States has yet to earn a medal on the speedskating long track. If you ask the speedskating team, it's the fault of their suits provided by Under Armour, unproven prior to the Games. They swapped to an earlier suit, also from Under Armour, starting with today's event, the men's 1,500 meters.

The Americans came in 7th, 11th, 22nd and 37th. So that's at least one data point saying it wasn't the suit's fault.

If you ask Dan Jansen, the suit wasn't the problem. It was the training site. Team USA trains nearly exclusively at an oval in Park City, Utah, training at altitude. American athletes in general tend to train at altitude whenever possible. The thinking goes, you're taking in less oxygen at altitude, it's tougher to train up there, so when you're down at lower altitudes, things seem easier. Altitude training is seen as adversity training: train under the biggest pain-in-the-ass conditions you can create for yourself, and come gameday, everything you'll actually confront is a piece of cake by comparison.

For summer sports, that's fine and dandy. But it's a different matter on the ice. Skating at altitude means you're passing through fewer air molecules, meaning you get less resistance. When you get less resistance on the ice, you slide farther, faster. That's not adversity training. On the ice, adversity training would be done at sea level, where you see what's known as 'worker ice'. You have to push harder for every step and every meter. The United States does have a lower-altitude oval, the Pettit Center in West Allis, Wisconsin, that is the second-choice facility for American speedskaters. I pass by it every time I drive into Milwaukee. West Allis isn't at sea level, though people like to claim it is- it's some 728 feet above sea level- but it comes close enough to serve the purpose. The Dutch, who have been dominating the medal podium, train at actual sea level by way of nature. That's where the Netherlands is. Much of it is below sea level. Hence the dikes.

Nobody was training at the Pettit Center.

So when everybody got to Sochi- which is at sea level- the Dutch were ready, having trained at that altitude by way of birth. The Americans, who had skated on Easy Mode in the Rockies, were caught unprepared for the conditions they'd actually be competing under.

Which brings up the real issue here. Adversity training is one thing, but what really pays off is simulation training. Practice under conditions as similar as possible to what you will actually face on gameday, and there will be no surprises. Every last element you can replicate helps more and more, and of course, training at the competition site itself is always a good idea.

South Korea's legendarily-dominant archery team loves doing simulation training. When preparing for Sydney 2000, they went out to a baseball stadium, filled it with spectators, and had them get rowdy while the archers took their shots. For Beijing 2008, they went so far as to build a replica of the venue they'd be competing at and trained there. They did it again for London 2012. They also love their adversity training, as the links will show by telling about things like staring at dead bodies, cleaning up sewage, running military courses, bungee jumping, and going through haunted houses.

The Russian skeleton team has done similar... though in a way that stretches the rules to their absolute limit. According to Olympic regulations, all practice facilities on Olympic grounds must be open to all athletes. This is why the Australians lodged a protest that the Russians had a push track nearby and replicating the luge/skeleton/bobsled course, that they'd been using to perfect their takeoffs. The protest was denied, but on the technicality that the push track had not been officially certified by the sport's governing body, the FIBT, and therefore was not part of the field of play.

Elena Nikitina would go on to win bronze in the women's skeleton; Olga Potylitsina finished 5th and Maria Orlova finished 6th. In the men's competition, Alexander Tretjyakov won gold, Sergei Chudinov finished 5th and Nikita Tregbyov finished 6th.

Pyeongchang is about 1,250 feet above sea level. West Allis is 728 feet. Park City is some 7,000 feet.

You tell me what the better option is when training for 2018.

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