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What is the secret behind the Netherlands' speed skating domination?

Sven Kramer of the Netherlands competes during the Men's 5000m Speed Skating event on day two of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Oval on February 11, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
by Rayane Moussallem, AIPS Media

PYEONGCHANG, February 11, 2018 - Dutch domination continued in the speed skating when defending champion Sven Kramer beat his own Olympic Record set in Sochi 2014 by one second to grab his third straight Olympic gold medal in the Men’s 5000 meters event at Gangneung Oval Arena in 6:09:76 minutes.

Kramer who competed in pair 10 had to better the results achieved in the battle of the battles pair 9 race when 5000m and 10 000m World Record holder Canadian Ted-Jan Bloemen needed an official photo to beat Norway’s Sverre Lunde Pedersen by two one-thousandths of a second to earn silver, with the Norgwegian having to settle for bronze.

Kramer became the only man to win eight Olympic Speed Skating medals and the only man to win Olympic gold in the same event three times. Just yesterday, the Netherlands swept the podium in the Ladies’ 3000 meters. And neither their podium sweep or Kramer's gold on Sunday came as a surprise to anyone. No other nation comes close to the Dutch when it comes to speed skating, and it is no coincidence either.

Dutch masters

Veteran Dutch journalist Jacob de Groot spoke to AIPS about the reasons that helped the Netherlands dominate in this sport throughout so many Olympics and World Championships:

He said: “It is part of the culture, if you look at the old paintings from the Dutch masters you would see a lot of skating, it is a culture that dates back to 500 years ago. If you look at the structure of the country, there is water everywhere so when it is freezing, the fastest way to move from A to B is to skate so it is part of a culture that we grew up with; like you learn to walk and swim, you learn to skate.”

In Sochi 2014 Winter Games, the Netherlands grabbed 23 out of 36 medals in the Speed Skating events and on Day 3 of PyeongChang 2018, they already have five medals including two gold and two silver.

Thijs Zonneveld, a journalist at the AD Sportwereld newspaper told AIPS: “It is partly cultural and partly structural, the main reason is because we have a lot ice rinks and professional teams compared to all the other countries. In the Netherlands, there is a lot of professional teams competing against each other and the trials are really high level so you have to be a really good speed skater to go to the Olympics for Netherlands."

Fierce rivalry

Incredibly enough, Canada's silver medalist on Sunday, Ted-Jan Bloemen is Dutch-born and used to compete for the Netherlands before switching to Canada from 2014-2015 season (thanks to his father's dual Dutch-Canadian citizenship) because he couldn’t find a place within the Dutch skaters due to the high level. He was rewarded with a silver medal in his first ever Olympics participation at 31 years old.

Speaking to the press after the race, he said: “It was a hard decision [to switch to Canada] but in the end it was also easy because I always felt at home right from the start. I had such great people around me and my wife came over with me, she was my girlfriend back then (laughs). I have just been happy in the past four years of my life.”

De Groot explained: “We have so many good skaters and he had to take this decision because of the rivalry, he couldn’t get through. It is similar to the story of South Korean-born Russian Viktor Ahn who competed in Sochi and won four medals. We had it for the first time in Albertville 1992 Winter Games with Bart Veldkamp who competed for the Netherlands and then switched to Belgium in Nagano 1998.”

Silver medalist Ted-Jan Bloemen Bloemen is Dutch-born and used to compete for the Netherlands before switching to Canada. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Big investment

Despite having great nations in winter sports such as Canada, USA, Norway, Germany and others, the Netherlands has been dominating the speed skating in the last years due to a mix of factors, among which the professionalization and sponsorship levels of the sport are key.

“I think in other countries they struggle to find the funding for speed skating and this is not a problem in the Netherlands because a guy like Kramer is a millionaire because of sponsorship. In Canada for example there are bigger sports, so when you are as talented as Kramer and a big guy like him, you would end up an ice hockey player,” Zonneveld told AIPS.

De Groot added: “Investment and media entered speed skating 20 years ago when it got more professional; when the skaters decided not to remain within the association anymore and start their own commercial teams. The competition became tougher between the rivals because money was there, so you needed to prepare well otherwise you would have a season with less income.”

“In Holland, football is the number one sport but then comes cycling and skating. The problem for USA for example is that there are so many others sports that skating has to fight to get its platform. When a country like Holland starts to professionalize the sport, the gap gets bigger. It is the result of the culture we had, it became very professional, while in the USA it is just a sport that some people like to do.” De Groot concluded.

Kramer and the Netherlands will have the chance to add to their tally in the remaining speed skating events of PyeongChang 2018.

(L-R) Bronze medalist Antoinette de Jong of the Netherlands, gold medallist Carlijn Achtereekte of the Netherlands and silver medalist Ireen Wust of the Netherlands pose during the Medal Ceremony for the Ladies' Speed Skating 3000m on day two of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Medal Plaza on February 11, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

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