The clap skate caused a Speed Skating revolution in 1997. In the 1997/98 Speed Skating season nine out of ten world records in both the men's and women's events were broken thanks to the innovation. But it wasn't as new an idea as it seemed to be. The first patent for a clap skate was granted to one Charles Corneby in England in 1884, but somehow the idea was never put into practice in international competition.
Gerrit Jan van Ingen Schenau was the main pioneer of the clap skate in the 1980s. The Dutch bio-mechanist already wrote a PhD thesis on the subject in 1981. When he and skate-manufacturer Viking applied for a European patent however, they found out that the idea had already been patented, in 1894 one Karl Hannes in Germany and he had not even been the first to patent the idea of a clap skate. Between 1884 and 1937 five patents were granted based on the idea of a shoe which moves relative to the blade.
Clap Skates at the ISU European Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
Van Ingen Schenau was not aware of the previous ideas for a clap skate. As a bio-mechanist he saw the shortcomings of the traditional skate with the blades fixed to the shoe. He reasoned that Speed Skaters were not able to make use of all their available power, because they were forced to remove the blade from the ice before the ankle and the knee were fully extended, to prevent the tip from scratching the surface which would slow them down.
From the early 1980s, Van Ingen Schenau worked on a skate with a hinge and a spring, to allow the skater's heel to lift in order to be able to fully extend the knee and the ankle, without removing the blade from the ice. Despite initial scepticism from the Dutch top skaters, the scientist went on refining his invention in collaboration with Viking.
Tonny de Jong (NED) at the Olympic Winter Games 1998©Getty Images
It was only in the 1994/95 season that a group of junior skaters from the South-Holland provincial selection started using the clap skate competitively. Their exceptional improvement caught the eye of former Dutch ISU Allround Speed Skating champion and Dutch national women's coach Sijtje van der Lende. She convinced her pupils to try the innovated piece of equipment in the summer of 1996. When 23-year-old Tonny de Jong (NED) won the ISU European Allround Speed Skating Championships in 1997, the rest of the international Speed Skating world followed her example, and at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano (JPN) almost everyone used clap skates.
Clap Skates at the Olympic Winter Games 1998©Getty Images