Blade runners: the Dutch recipe for speed skating success

With two podium clean sweeps on the long track at the Adler Arena (in the men’s 5,000m and 500 m) and a medal count that had already hit double figures by Day 6 (12 out of a possible 18), the Netherlands’ supremacy in the speed skating at Sochi 2014 has been hard to ignore.

So just what is it that makes the Dutch such a formidable force on the ice? We take a look at a variety of factors that have contributed to the success of a sport in a country where speed skaters enjoy the same icon status as footballers.

In the course of the first five days of competition at Sochi 2014, Dutch speed skaters claimed four out of a possible five gold medals, winning the men’s 5,000m and 500m and the women’s 3,000m, and adding a further two silvers and four bronzes to take their running total to 10. Such achievements are not forged overnight…

A longstanding tradition

Ice skating has been a feature of Dutch life going back as far as the 16 century, when, according to historian Marnix Koolhaas, it was regarded as the most practical mode of winter transport for anyone who did not happen to own a horse.

Over time, local and national skating competitions began to evolve, the most famous of which was the Elfstedentocht (“the Eleven Cities Race”). The world’s biggest competition held on natural ice, the Elfstedentocht took place every winter until 1997, when it featured an incredible 16,000 participants, and attracting some two million spectators.

A broad base

According to the Royal Netherlands Skating Federation (KNSB), over five million people in the country - almost one third of the population - own a pair of ice skates. Of those, approximately 1.3 million are regular visitors to their local ice rink.

Meanwhile, the KNSB itself boasts 150,000 members, 16,000 of whom are registered to compete in speed skating competitions. And with active coaching available to children from the age of six, it means that the country has a strong grassroots base from which to identify and develop future champions.

Built for speed

“The Dutch are to skating what the Kenyans are to long-distance running,” remarked Belgian speed skater Bart Swings recently. He was, in part, referring to the fact that the Dutch have the physical “equipment” that makes them ideally suited to achieving speed and power on ice.

World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics indicate that, on average, the Dutch are among the tallest people in the world, often blessed with long legs and other physical attributes that are conducive to achieving high speeds on the ice.

According to Gerard Kempkers, the coach of the reigning men’s 5,000m Olympic champion: “Dutch kids learn to ride a bike from when they are very young, which means that from a very early age they are developing the same muscle groups needed for ice skating.”

An impressive infrastructure

The Netherlands boast almost three hundred permanent ice rinks, complete with the 400m tracks used in speed skating, not to mention the plethora of temporary rinks that mushroom around the country during the winter season. That means that nobody in the Netherlands has far to go when they want to practice their skills on the ice, and it is a phenomenon that the Dutch take full advantage of.

At any given weekend the ice rinks throughout the country are packed to capacity. At the Thialf ice arena in northern city of Heerenveen, which is generally regarded as the epicentre of the speed skating world and regularly hosts international competitions, the atmosphere often reaches fever pitch.

Success breeds success

Over recent seasons, Dutch speed skating has reached what might be termed a level of critical mass, with a golden generation of athletes providing inspiration to young skaters throughout the Netherlands.

The likes of Sven Kramer, Irene Wüst, Michel Mulder and Marianne Timmer are regarded as true sporting superstars in their home country, on a par with its leading footballers, which in a country that has produced icons such as Johan Cruyff tells you all you need to know.

Dutch success on the ice looks set to continue for many years to come. Many of those who have claimed podium finishes in Sochi, have already confirmed their intention to compete in four years’ time at Pyeongchang 2018, and they are intent on creating a legacy for future generations.

Having witnessed the exploits of Kramer & Co at the Adler Arena, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands expressed the hope that their success would “inspire thousands of Dutch youngsters” to follow in their footsteps and pursue their own Olympic dreams.