PyeongChang 2018

What You Need to Know About Mass Start, the Winter Olympics’ Most Exciting New Event

The final speed skating event of the 2018 Winter Olympics will take place in PyeongChang on Saturday afternoon (United States-time), and in many ways it seems the organizers have saved the best for last. That's because it's the mass start speed skating event, which has been variously described as chaotic, exciting, and even "NASCAR on ice." It's also the first time the mass start competition has been featured in the Winter Olympics, so no one really knows what might happen.

Indeed, even if you find regular speed skating events a tad bit boring, this one will be well worth watching. Who knows, it may even make the cut to be one of best moments of the entire Games. Here's what you need to know.

How is it different from team speed skating?

Unlike traditional long-track or short-track speed skating, in which four to six skaters at a time race around the oval in a time trial format, mass start involves up to 24 skaters facing off against one another at the same time in a mad dash to complete 16 laps the fastest. As you might imagine, things can get a little bit crowded and crazy, and it basically becomes the closest thing you'll ever see to a roller derby on the Olympic stage.

Winning involves a bit of both short-track and long-track strategy, as there are three sprint laps throughout the longer 6,400 meter race -- a "race within a race" if you will. Specifically, laps 4, 8, and 12 of the 16 are the "premium" or sprint laps, and the first three skaters to finish each of those individual laps are awarded points. However, points aren't what earns a skater a medal, because to get on the podium you have to cross the finish line at the end (after the 16th lap) first, second, or third (makes sense, right?). The points awarded for the sprint laps come into play to help rank the other finishers.

How crazy and chaotic does it get?

Since there are so many more skaters on the ice at the same time jockeying for position -- particularly, during the sprint laps -- there can be a whole lot of bumping and nudging in what can come across as an all-out free-for-all. However, competitors aren't supposed to intentionally "obstruct" one another. You'll also notice that things calm down intermittently as skaters try to conserve energy during the long 6,400 meter slog by drafting in formation behind the leader.

There is a real strategy to a long drawn out race like this (it's the second longest behind the men's 10,000 meter), and some skaters will intentionally start out slow then attempt to break away at a certain moment during the roughly 8 and half minutes it takes to complete all 16 laps.

Who are the stars to watch out for?

The Americans are poised to do quite well in the first-ever Olympic mass start event. In men's, Joey Mantia is currently the world champion, so he's a medal favorite, and for women's, fellow Team USA-er Heather Bergsma placed third in world's last year. They face some serious competition from the South Koreans, though, considering the host country won both men's and women's mass start at the 2016 Youth Olympics.

The 2018 Winter Olympics mass start events and where to watch them

All of the men's and women's mass start events are airing on Saturday, February 24. To see them, tune in at either 9:30am EST on NBCSN or 3pm EST on NBC. As always, you can also catch the action in real time via the live stream (which starts on Saturday beginning at 6am EST).

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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist. Follow him @jwmcgauley.