When Mars Blackmon asked Michael Jordan "Is it the shoes? He had the right question but the wrong sport. Long-track speed skaters are certain to set records at Nagano, thanks not to their abilities but to a new skate that shaves off a second per lap. The noisy new "klap" (Dutch for "slap") skate allows a longer and smoother stride. Since their debut at international events last winter, they have helped tie or break 16 world records. Every medal contender in Nagano will be wearing them.
THE COURSE Long-track heats involve two skaters who switch lanes every lap. Athletes race twice (starting once from each lane) and their times are added together. Klap skates allow a wider stride that keeps the blade on the ice longer and helps skaters negotiated the course's tight curves.
THE SKATE The klap mechanism consists of a sharp, thin blade and an upper plate that attaches to a standard skate boot. There are different designs, but most have a hinge at the toe and a high-tension spring.
The blades are honed and squared so they bit on the ice.
THE STRIDE Speed skating requires sideways strides to move the athlete forward. Longer klap-skate strides end with a strong backward push.
The normal stride causes the blade to leave the ice before leg extension is complete.
The klap stride allows the foot to roll over naturally, generating a stronger push.
SOURCES: NAOC, GERARD KEMKERS, U.S. INTERNATIONAL SPEEDSKATING ASSOCIATION. RESEARCH BY VILL VOURVOULIAS