Industry Sunday is a new series here at mgilday.blogspot.com. Each week (or post that comes out on Sunday - I'm not making any guarantees here!), I will address a topic specific to the sport of Short Track Speed Skating with the goal of informing, educating, starting discussion and/or editorializing.
This week, in the first installment of Industry Sunday, the topic will be my take on the new passing rule one year since it has taken effect. As you may or may not know, the International Skating Union introduced new rules last year in order to increase passing in the sport. There are many different opinions on the new rule, and although I don't have any hard figures, I would guess that in general passing during races is up. Is that a good or a bad thing? And what are some of the consequences?
First of all, we should look at exactly what the new rule is. In previous years, the rule applied by the referees was that a skater that was leading, or more specifically, a skater that was being passed, had the right of way. In this scenario, if skater A is leading, in order for skater B to complete a successful pass, skater B would have to be sure that he executed his pass fully without interfering or impeding with skater A. Under the new rule, the skater that has the right of way, or who is in a sense protected against interference or impeding, has changed. Now, the skater with the right of way is whichever skater is in front going into the corner. This is measured at the shoulders. So going back to our scenario, Skater A is leading, and Skater B is passing. Now, if Skater B can get just his shoulders in front of Skater A, the onus shifts to Skater A to not cause any contact as he is now behind. If contact is caused by Skater A, he can be penalized since he was effectively "behind". This is applied the same way for outside and inside passes.
Confused? Well you aren't the only one. In the the first few months of last season, there was a lot of confusion amongst the skaters, coaches and even the officials. There was a learning curve for everyone. It took time for skaters and coaches to change from their old tactics and learn the proper way to skate defensively and offensively under the new rule. Officials had a similar learning curve as they had to learn to look for different things than they had in the past. As everyone learned how to function best under the new rule, changes as to how races were raced and officiated emerged.
Athletes quickly realized that they could get away with what may have been, in the past, bad passes. There was an increase of skaters trying to squeeze their shoulders ahead of another skater at the last second before the entrance into a corner. "Suicide passes" or passes where one skater hurls himself from the back of the pack to the front without an actual space to fit into increased as well. This subsequently lead to more multi-skater crashes, or whole pack pile ups. There were also changes in the way races were officiated. Due to the fact that all it took was to have ones shoulders ahead of the other skater, something that is very hard to tell with the naked eye at 40+km/h, the need to use video replay increased substantially. This subsequently slowed the pace at which a day of racing rolled, as there were longer delays between races.
So has the new rule improved the sport? In my opinion as a skater, I'm not sure. Yes there are now more opportunities to pass. On the flip though this means its easier to be passed. I think that more passing in the sport is generally a good thing, as it will only serve to increase the excitement of the sport which, ideally, will increase the overall viewership and popularity of Short Track, promoting the growth of the sport. But is there a cost? With the increase of big crashes are we likely to see more injuries? Although big crashes are unfortunately what this sport is known for (Stephen Bradbury 2002 Olympics anyone?) having more of that isn't the way to sell the sport. Especially if the top skaters, the ones that the sport relies on as headliners, role models and spokespeople, start to get seriously injured more often. In addition, there will need to be a way to mitigate the length of time it takes for video replay. Obviously we all want fair calls to be made by the officials, but in todays on-demand world, where people's attention spans are shorter than ever and TV audiences demand non stop action, we can't have big delays in between races either. Ultimately, I think its going to take at least another year to really see whether the changes are in fact good for the growth and development of the sport.