Olympic speed skating, or long track as it is known today, made its debut at the first Winter Olympics in 1924 in Chamonix, France and it has been a highlight of the Games ever since. Early Olympic competition was dominated by the Finns and Norwegians; however, the Americans invariably provided stiff competition.
Canada's first Olympic speed skating medals were won in 1932 in Lake Placid. The medal count was one silver and four bronze for the men while the women, competing in demonstration events, captured one gold and two silver medals. A star of those Games was the legendary Lela Brooks, who in 1925 set six world records and in 1926 became the first all-around world champion.
By the late 1930s, popular interest in speed skating began to decline; and as hockey arenas were built, professional hockey hastened the diminishing spectator appeal of the sport. The advent of World War II also took a toll on the popularity of Canadian speed skating. When Olympic competition resumed in 1948, the Norwegians remained the skaters to beat. However, at the 1952 Oslo Games Canada's Gordon Audley brought home the 500m bronze medal. By 1956 at Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, speed skaters from the Soviet Union (absent from Olympic competition for 48 years) ended the Norwegian stranglehold on Olympic speed skating. The Canadians were shut out and would have to wait until 1976 to mount the victor's podium once again.
The 1972 Games were memorable because of the Dutchman, Ard Schenk, winner of three gold medals. For Canada, Sapporo stands out because it marked the Olympic debut of Sylvia Burka, Canada's greatest modern female speed skater. Inspired by her Olympic experience, Burka went on to enjoy an illustrious career which included three Olympic appearances and the World Sprint Championship title in 1976. Sprinter Cathy Priestner is another outstanding Canadian performer. She was the first Canadian woman to win an official Olympic medal, taking the 500m silver at the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympic Games.
It was in Innsbruck that a 17-year-old Gaétan Boucher first tested Olympic waters attracting international attention with a respectable sixth-place finish in 1,000m. At the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games, Boucher provided Canada's top result of the Games, winning the silver medal in the 1,000 m, and the best was yet to come. At the 1984 Sarajevo Games, Boucher got off to a quick start winning an unexpected bronze medal in 500m — an event he described as a warm-up for his specialties, the 1,000m and 1,500m events. He was right. By the end of the Games he had earned two gold medals to add to his bronze and he won both in decisive fashion. Plagued over the next four years by a recurring ankle injury suffered in 1983, Boucher competed valiantly on home ice at the 1988 Calgary Games. Unfortunately, he finished out of the medal standings and retired from the sport.
The next four years proved to be a building period for Canada. The top long track speed skating result for the 1992 Albertville Games was Guy Thibault's seventh in the 1,000 m. Kevin Scott and Sean Ireland and two new-comers to the Olympic scene, Patrick Kelly and Neal Marshall used the Games as building blocks for their next challenge, the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway. On the women's team, Susan Auch was Canada's best performer, finishing 6th in the 500 m. Susan then set her eyes on the podium for Norway. At the Lillehammer Winter Olympic Games, Susan Auch won the first medal in long track for Canada since the 1984 Games by placing second in the 500m and 8th in the 1,000m. In the men's competition, Sylvain Bouchard, Patrick Kelly and Kevin Scott placed 5th, 6th and 10th respectively in the 1,000m, while Neal Marshall finished 7th in the 1,500m. Most of these skaters would become the foundation of Canada's team for the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
Since 1994, the long track team has had excellent performances at the world level. It started with a bang in 1994 when Kevin Scott broke the world record in the 1,000m during the Canadian Sprint Championship and then won the gold medal in the 1,000m at the World Sprint Championship in Milwaukee. During that championship, Susan Auch won the silver in the 500m. Overall, Canada placed three men in the top 11 and two women in the top 10 during this championship. In 1995, Neal Marshall became the first Canadian to win a World Cup title in the 1,500m. Canada also earned five medals at the various World Senior Championships and added two more at the Junior World Championships. In 1996, Catriona LeMay Doan won a gold and a silver medal in the 500m at the World Sprint Championships while Susan Auch earned a bronze medal at the same competition. Kevin Overland and Sylvain Bouchard broke the World Record in the 1,000m at the Canadian Championships. In 1997, Neal Marshall broke the 1,500m World Record again and also won a bronze medal in this distance at the World Single Distance Championships. Jason Parker won a bronze medal in the same distance at the World All-Round Championships while Catriona LeMay Doan earned a silver medal in the 500 m of the World Sprint Championships.
The 1997-1998 season was the best ever for the Canadian long track team. Five Olympic medals, 18 World Championship medals and 42 World Cup medals were won by 8 different members of the team. Four overall World Cup titles were also captured by Canadian skaters. Leading the way was Catriona LeMay Doan, who won gold in every 500m event she entered, save one World Cup where she was beaten by teammate Susan Auch. She won a gold in the 500m and bronze in the 1,000m at the Nagano Olympics, the World Sprint Championships, gold and silver in the 500m and 1,000m respectively at the World Single Distance Championships, the overall World Cup titles for those same distances and at one point, held the 500m, 1,000m, and 1,500m World Records. She finished the season with the 500 m World and Olympic Records to her name. Not to be outdone, Susan Auch won 500 m silver medals at the Nagano Olympics and the World Sprint Championships and finished the season second overall in the World Cup standings for that distance.
A Canadian 2-3-4-5 finish at the Nagano Olympics, with Jeremy Wotherspoon winning silver and Kevin Overland bronze, was the highlight of the men’s long track team in 1997-1998 season. Wotherspoon also won the overall World Cup titles over 500m and 1,000m and finished second overall at the World Sprint Championships winning medals in all four distances. He also came in third in the 500 m and second in the 1,000m at the World Single Distance Championships placing right behind fellow teammate Sylvain Bouchard in each distance. Bouchard won silver and gold in those two distances and set a World Record in the 1,000m in the process. Steven Elm had a breakthrough year on the all-round team winning the first World Cup medal in the 5,000m for Canada in many years and rewriting the Canadian record books in the process.
The 98-99 season was very successful as the athletes continued to do well on the international scene. Jeremy Wotherspoon won the overall World Cup titles over 500m and 1,000m and finished first overall at the World Sprint Championships. Michael Ireland finished 3rd overall in the 500 m World Cup final classification. Catriona LeMay Doan once again proved that her success is not due to chance. She finished 2nd at World Sprint Championships and she finished respectively 1st and 3rd for the 500m and 1,000m at both the overall World Cup standing and World Single Distance Championships.
During the 99-00 season, Canadian speed skaters showed that they would be serious contenders for medals at 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games. Jeremy Wotherspoon repeated his last season achivement to finish 1st overall in both the 500m and 1,000m at the World Cup and to win the World Sprint Championships. He also finished 3rd in the 500m at the World Single Distance Championships. Michael Ireland finished 3rd overall at the World Cup for the 500m and finished 2nd at the World Sprint Championships behind Jeremy Wotherspoon, to become vice-champion. He also finished 2nd in the 500m and 3rd in the 1,000m at the World Single Distance Championships. Catriona Lemay Doan finished 3rd in the 500m at the same competition.