With nine medals to his name, the Netherlands’ Sven Kramer is the most decorated speed skater in the history of the Olympic Winter Games. At PyeongChang 2018, he became the first man to win the 5,000m title three times in a row, an event in which he also won silver at Turin 2006. As of 2018, Kramer had also won more single distance and allround world titles than anyone else, 19 and nine respectively.
Kramer was almost predestined to become a speed skater. He hails from the Dutch city of Heerenveen, one of the cradles of speed skating and a regular port of call for the European Championships, World Championships and ISU World Cup. Moreover, his father was a professional speed skater and encouraged him to follow in his footsteps.
A Dutch junior time-trial runner-up, Kramer turned his back on cycling to pursue his dream of becoming the best speed skater in the world, and served notice of his ability on the ice by winning the national allround title as an 18-year-old in 2004. A year later he won European allround silver on his home rink before setting a new 5,000m world record of 6:08.78 in Salt Lake City (USA) that November, a mark he has since improved on several times.
Kramer made his first Olympic Winter Games appearance at Turin 2006 when he was 20. It was a successful debut, as he won silver in the 5,000m. He then lined up in the team pursuit, in which the Dutch were hot favourites. But disaster struck in the semi-final against Italy, when Sven fell, taking one of his team-mates with him. The Dutch nevertheless saw off Norway to win the bronze and give Kramer a second Olympic medal.
“When I went to Turin 2006 at the age of 19, I’d just set my first 5,000m world record and I fancied my chances for gold,” he later recalled. “But I wasn’t yet ready, and not as strong as I was in Vancouver or Sochi, and I was beaten by Chad Hedrick of the USA. He had a great race and I won the silver. It was my first year as a pro skater and I learned a lot at my first Olympics.”
Over the following four years, Kramer went on to become one of the world’s top speed skaters, winning 12 World Championship titles and setting several world records, taking his best 5,000m time down to 6:03.32 in Calgary (CAN) in November 2007, which stood for ten years. Although he competed at all individual distances, it was in the 5,000m and 10,000m that he truly excelled, while he also established himself as a key figure for the Dutch in the team pursuit.
Kramer was at the height of his powers as he arrived in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games, and had his sights set on no fewer than three titles. He got off to a flying start, seeing off his compatriot, Jochem Uytdehaage in the 5,000m final, and setting a new Olympic record in the process.
He kept the momentum going in the 10,000m final, crossing the line in first place, and was already celebrating a second title when news filtered through that he had been disqualified for choosing the wrong lane just after the midway point of the race. It transpired that Kramer had followed some erroneous instructions from his coach, who had told him to take the inside rather than the outside lane.
“Vancouver was a big disappointment for me, which might sound strange given that I won the 5,000m,” said the Dutch speedster afterwards. “I was expecting something else, though. I was all set to win the 10,000m but we made a huge mistake. We learned from that experience for Sochi.”
A few days later, Sven put the setback behind him to focus on the team pursuit event. The Dutch cruised into the semi-finals, but were then beaten by the USA by just three tenths of a second. It meant that they were once again pitted against the Norwegians for the final spot on the podium, and again came away with the bronze.
Though Kramer had to sit out the 2010/11 season because of a thigh injury, he came back even stronger, winning the world allround crown in 2012 and 2013 to take his tally to a record-breaking six titles. He also reasserted his supremacy in the 5,000m, winning gold in the event in 2012 and 2013, a feat he matched in the team pursuit.
Kramer began his Sochi 2014 campaign by completing a successful defence of his 5,000m title, but had to settle for silver in the 10,000m, in which he was out-raced by fellow Dutchman Jorrit Bergsma. He then rounded off a hugely successful Games by hooking up with Jan Blokhuijsen and Koen Verweij to win the team pursuit, as the Dutch saw off Poland in the final by a margin of over 11 seconds. By the end of Sochi 2014, Kramer’s total Olympic medal count stood at seven, three of them gold.
Though a veteran of three Winter Games, Kramer showed no signs of slowing up, winning three straight world allround titles – in 2015 in Calgary (CAN), 2016 in Berlin (GER), and 2017 in Hamar (NOR) – to take his tally of golds in the competition to nine since 2007.
More titles continued to come his way in the World Single Distance Championships, with a string of victories in the 5,000m, 10,000m and team pursuit in that three-year period taking him to 19 career golds at the championships in all.
As he headed to PyeongChang 2018, aged 31, he made it clear that his love of winning was as strong as it had always been: “I love this sport so much and I’m motivated to go and achieve every day. I have a very, very good team. Don’t get me wrong – it can be really hard sometimes. But the big secret to it all is to go and have a great time.”
When his fourth Olympics got under way, Kramer wasted no time in making an impression. In setting a new Olympic record of 6:09.76 in the 5,000m and beating Canada’s Ted-Jan Bloemen and Norway’s Sverre Lunde Pedersen by 1.85 seconds, he became the first speed skater to win the event for the third time in a row, while also claiming his fourth medal at the distance.
It was also his eighth Olympic medal, making him the most decorated male Olympian in the sport ahead of former greats Ivar Ballangrud and Clas Thunberg. “It’s great to beat the Olympic record,” said the Dutchman. “Every four years I seem to progress and it’s great to see. I’ve won a lot and I’ve lost a lot, and this victory is very special for me.”
Kramer nevertheless tasted disappointment in the 10,000m a week later, failing to find his best form and finishing sixth, though he came back to win team pursuit bronze, as he, Jan Blokhuijsen and Patrick Roest got the better of New Zealand. His Games came to an end in the mass start, a race in which he set the pace for team-mate Koen Verweij, who took bronze.
While Kramer’s nine medals make him the most decorated male speed skater of all time, his haul of four golds is one short of the all-time record, held jointly by the USA’s Eric Heiden – who won his five at Lake Placid 1980 – and Finland’s Clas Thunberg – who won his between 1924 and 1928.
Kramer’s ongoing failure to win the 10,000m, which caused him a few sleepless nights in PyeongChang, is likely to keep him skating through to Beijing 2022, when he may well go for gold again in the distance.
“I’m not ruling it out,” he said. “I’m going to take things one year at a time. Is my career going to be incomplete without 10,000m gold? That’s a question I’m going to have to ask myself. In any case, I’m still strong in body and mind.”
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