NAGANO, Japan -- What does progress sound like?
That's the new sound -- and controversy -- to hit speed skating at the Winter Olympics, as the athletes prepare to lace up their "clap skates" and lay waste to the record books.
With a hinge and a spring, the clap skate has triggered a technological revolution in a sport still tethered to the ideal of Hans Brinker gliding along frozen Dutch canals.
And although everyone accepts that the clap skate is here to stay, not everyone is thrilled.
"For years, speed skating has been about physical conditioning, mental conditioning and technical skill," said Dutch-born U.S. coach Gerard Kemkers, who tried on an experimental pair of clap skates 10 years ago. "Combining your top skills made you the best athlete. It wasn't because you had a better engine or more money to buy a better engine."
In the last year, though, the clap skate has become the sport's essential engine. And the athletes have turned into mechanics, carrying around wrenches and bolts in a bid to fine-tune the high-tech product.
On old speed skates, the long blades were firmly attached to the boots. But on each clap skate, the blade is held by a hinge at the toe, enabling the skaters to push longer with a powerful ankle extension. A spring mechanism slaps the blade back into place for the next stride.
At first, the clap skates were the inventions the Americans loved to hate. They couldn't get their hands on a good pair, but the Europeans gained a plentiful supply, enabling them quickly to adapt to the new style of skating.
America's star women's sprinter Chris Witty said a pure sport was being wrecked by "this machine." KC Boutiette took one look at the new product and vowed to show up at the Olympic starting line with a mountain bike decked out with studded tires.
Well, Witty isn't complaining. She set a world record in the 1,000 meters with the clap skates.
And Boutiette said: "I love the skate. It made me faster."
Witty and Boutiette weren't the only ones to get faster. Just about every competitor on the World Cup treadmill got quicker, and nearly every world record fell, as more and more teams got their hands on the skates that run up to $700 a pair.
Last June, over American objections, the sport's ruling body, the International Skating Union, waived the invention right into the Olympics. The Americans had pressed for a moratorium, to enable the rest of the world to catch up to the Europeans.
"This is how we left last season -- frustrated and hurt," Kemkers said. "Our voice was not heard. OK, fine. From that point on, the skate is accepted, so we had better view this as a challenge."
But in this race, it's the Dutch who remain far ahead.
In basements and workshops throughout the Netherlands, hundreds of amateurs work hours trying to refine their blades and find a better way to compete in a sport that is a national pastime.
At the Free University in Amsterdam, though, a group of engineers and biomechanical experts led by Gerrit Jan van Ingen-Schennau hit pay dirt. They developed what they thought was the first clap skate, and tried to patent it in 1985. But they soon discovered that a hinge-style figure skate was actually patented in Germany in 1894.
Still, the Dutch team pushed ahead, refining their product and eventually finding a skating guinea pig, a graduate student and amateur skater named Jos de Koning.
"At first, everybody was curious about the skate," de Koning said. "We tried to convince the top skaters to use it, but they were afraid to skate with it in races. They had to change their technique. And then, well, other people said, 'If the top skaters are not using it, why should I?' You're in a kind of circle."
Finally, in 1994, 11 Dutch junior skaters trained full time in the clap skates and showed such startling improvement that three women on the Dutch national team made the switch to the new blades during the 1996-97 World Cup season.
"That's when the avalanche began," de Koning said. "The Dutch women cut their times. And everyone had to have a pair."
De Koning, who is now an assistant professor of biomechanics at the Free University, said the skates don't offer any magic. They just provide a more efficient means of transportation as the skaters reach speeds exceeding 40 mph.
"The engine isn't the skates," he said. "It's the athlete."
And de Koning said if the Dutch can master the clap skate technology, then surely the Americans -- and the rest of the world -- can follow.
"The skate is quite simple," he said. "If America is able to send rockets to the moon, then it is possible to make a skate with a hinge. This is much simpler than the space shuttle. Isn't it?"
Pub Date: 2/03/98