SOCHI, Russia — As short track speedskaters come off the oval at Iceberg Skating Palace, a venue that splits time between short track and figure skating, many are voicing concerns over the quality of the ice, calling conditions unpredictable and inconsistent.
J.R. Celski, the top American medal contender, called dealing with the ice surface a "roller coaster."
"We've been going back and forth from figure skating to short track," Celski said. "After figure skating you can't predict how it's going to be. It's often softer and wetter than you expect. You put pressure down where you shouldn't and you pay the price."
Celski remained steady, secure and upright throughout qualifying heats in the men's 500 meters, making him one of the lucky ones — and among Americans, the only skater to advance to the quarterfinals.
Canada's Charles Hamelin, who took gold in last week's 1,500, the fourth medal of his Olympic career, careened out of contention in the eighth heat in the 500 — a disappointing result for the Quebec native, who set an Olympic record during the qualifying round in 2010.
"I could feel my skate give out a little bit," Hamelin said. "It's like the ice was breaking under my blades just then, but everything up until that moment was really smooth. Short track can be a rude sport. It doesn't take much to make a person fall."
Kazakhstan's Aydar Bekzhanov already was facing an uphill battle for qualification after being paired in his heat with Russia's Viktor An, the most dominant figure in the sport. But he said the ice, along with a sloppy start, led to a finish less than four-tenths of a second behind An and Britain's Jon Eley, leaving him out of the quarterfinal round.
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"My start wasn't so good and the ice wasn't so good as I couldn't pass him," Bekzhanov said of An. "The ice is soft here; you cannot be sure. You see a lot of other struggling with it, and I'm one of them."
If a common topic among short track skaters, the conditions at Iceberg Skating Palace pale in comparison to the controversy surrounding U.S. Speedskating's efforts in long track, which have centered on the use of a new, Under Armour-designed skin suit.
Debate over the Under Armour suits, called the "Mach 39," has echoed throughout Sochi since U.S. Speedskating's internal dissension was made public late last week. The U.S. Olympic Committee issued a statement Monday saying it would "leave no stone unturned" in reviewing U.S. Speedskating's disappointing performance in the Winter Games and does not believe the controversial Under Armour-designed suits played a role in the team's results.
"Given our history of strong performances in speedskating, we are disappointed not to have had a podium finish to date in Sochi. After the Games, we will work side by side with US Speedskating to understand how we might better support our athletes, many of whom have already proven themselves to be great champions," the statement said.
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But unlike the controversy surrounding U.S. Speedskating's missteps in long track, the conditions at Iceberg Skating Palace are an issue shared by all short track skaters, not just those from the USA, and one that stands as an Olympic rite of passage.
"There's always complaints Olympic time, but at least it's consistent every Olympics," said U.S. skater Jordan Malone, who slipped and fell in the fifth heat. "In the Olympics you always expect thick and soft ice."
There is one fact U.S. short track skaters share with their long track teammates, however: no medals. American skaters have failed to medal in any of the first four short track events; the top finisher was Celski, who came in fourth in the 1,500 after taking bronze in the event in 2010.
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U.S. Speedskating's long track woes have largely overshadowed the organization's disappointing turn on the short track, where American skaters have typically gone toe-to-toe with the world's best since the sport joined the Olympics in 1992.
The USA has won 18 medals in short track, fourth overall entering these Games, trailing South Korea (37), Canada (25) and China (24). No short track skater is as decorated as America's Apolo Anton Ohno, who won eight medals — two more than his next-closest competitor — over the span of three Olympic Games.
"Our team isn't performing the way we wanted to," said Celski, who takes his final shot at an individual medal in the 500 Friday, starting with the quarterfinals. "It's something we have to deal with as a team. We win as a team, we lose as a team. I'm going to go out there and give it my best. Fortunately I have another opportunity to perform and I don't take that for granted at all."