Full Speed Ahead for Fiftieth Olympic Skating Event

Plunging temperatures across the Netherlands this winter forced many innocent pedestrians to skate – whether they liked it or not - along ice-encrusted pavements. While some craved crampons, many embraced the big freeze by digging out their ice skates and creating some winter games of their own.

Warming up for a special Olympic milestone, the women’s Dutch skating team make the final preparations for the Vancouver Games while, only fifty years ago, female speed-skaters were in training for their biggest competition in the history of the sport.

The 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, marked a turning point for the Dutch national sport, as women made their debut in the competition – 36 years after men had raced around the track. But why had it taken them so long to join the ultimate contest?

When Pierre de Coubertin revived the modern Olympic Games in 1896, he described the event as “the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism, with internationalism as a base, loyalty as a means, art for its setting, and female applause as reward”. He, among others of his time, would be shocked to find the growing ranks of women, over the last century, who have traded spectators’ seats for a place on their nation’s team.

The first woman to do so was Briton, Madge Syers, who entered the London World Championships in 1902. Her second place ranking was a sensation and surprised the unsuspecting judges, who had not anticipated female competitors. This led to the banning of women from the event but, undeterred, Syers went on to be crowned the first Gold medal winner in the Women’s Singles event in London’s 1908 Olympic Games.

Across the channel, Dutch skaters – credited with innovating skating as a means of transport, founding the ISU (International Skating Union) in 1892, and spreading the sport throughout Europe and North America – were about to take skating to a new level of endurance with the formation of the ‘Elfstedentocht’.

The ‘Eleven Cities Tour’ covers almost 200km of the northern province of Friesland in the Netherlands – but only when the ice is at least 15cm thick to support the 16,000 skaters who clamour for a much-coveted place in the race. For women, that right was only granted on the thirteenth event in 1985 with Lenie van der Hoorn coming in as first female: recognition at last for women who previously had to skate as amateurs with no hope of award.

‘Elfstedenkoorts’ – Eleven City Tour fever – grips the nation when temperatures plunge and with the recent lingering cold snap, the Dutch were hopeful for the first race since 1997. Liesbeth Kanis, 33, an amateur skater with the Rijnsburgse IJsclub in Leiden describes the national passion: “Naturally, every winter I hope that it will freeze and that I will be able to skate outside. Nothing beats skating outdoors in natural surroundings. When the “Elfstedentocht” is on, the Dutch go absolutely berserk. It is like a national frenzy even worse than football.”

“My current day heroes are Irene Wüst and Sven Kramer. I can’t wait to see them in action in Vancouver! It is not surprising that my first skating heroes were Evert van Bethem (winner of the Elfstedentocht in 1985 and 1986) and Yvonne van Gennip, the Queen of Gold, who won 3 gold medals at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.”

A legendary athlete among the Dutch, van Gennip, 35, looked unlikely to attend the competition after suffering from a foot infection eight weeks before the 1988 Games. However, two weeks’ bed rest revitalised the star and she went on to break two world records in the 3,000m and 5,000m, as well as improving her own personal best in the 1,500m by nearly four seconds. Bringing home three Gold medals to her home town, Haarlem, van Gennip was greeted by 60,000 fans lining the streets in honour of her victory.

A decade later, the Dutch women’s team were celebrating a further two Gold medals at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Marianne Timmer, 35, described as the ‘leading lady’ of speed skating, took home the highest accolades for the 1,000m and 1,500m events. With another Gold medal to her name in the 1,000m at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy, Timmer was hopeful for qualification in the Vancouver Games.

Following a shattered heel injury in November last year, the star’s journey to recovery hasn’t been easy: "In the last five weeks I've had to go from learning to walk again to delivering a top performance on the ice". However, the 1,000m qualification race proved too early for her, when January 25th earned its name as the most depressing day of the year, with Timmer’s third place receiving a respectful standing ovation at Thialf Ice Stadium. “I just ran out of time and that is bitter. Give me two more weeks and I know it would be a different contest.”

It’s a different story, however, for long track speed skater, Renate Groenewold, 33, who described her 3,000m victory at the 2009 Single Distance World Championships as “totally unexpected”, after a series of silver medals last decade denied her the gold victory. No stranger to success, Groenewold entered into the history books in 2004 as the first Dutch woman to win gold at the World Allround Speedskating Championships since 1973.

However, her first gold at the Games is top priority since losing out in 2006 to team-mate, Ireen Wust. In spite of disappointment, Groenewold graciously gave Wust her triumph by saying: “It is always better to have a Dutchie on top than someone else”. Time has taught her, though, that “In this sport, you must also be selfish. I go to Vancouver only for gold in the 3km”.

Wust, at 23, has given the Dutch much to be proud of in her early career. At the Torino Games, aged only 19, she was crowned the Dutch Olympic Champion as the youngest Gold medallist for her 3,000m victory. Qualifying for the 1,000m, 1,500m and 3,000m events in Vancouver, Wust doesn’t take her success for granted, declaring that “to have that ticket – it’s a relief”.

Worth her weight in gold, the young star gives inspiration to young female skaters, perhaps aspiring to represent their country in the future: “In professional sport everything revolves around winning, delivering again and again in competition with others”.

However, Wust recognises the pressure to maintain a healthy approach to her career, acknowledging that although “Sport is the most important thing in my life, at the same time I can see things in perspective”. Mature for her years, the skater knows too well how vulnerable success can be and concedes that while “You want to be on a high as long as possible, you are also a human being of flesh and blood...but, with confidence and hard work, a next high will always be in sight ”.

In the final days before their fiftieth Olympic event, the diverse ladies’ team is hopeful that endurance, experience and enthusiasm will add a wealth of gold weight to their return baggage and show that, after half a century, speed skating is no longer only a man’s world.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands is embracing its heritage by putting down tools to make the traditional Dutch declaration: “Wij willen ijsvrij!” (“We want ice time!”)


At a Glance - The Dutch Ladies’ Team
Thijsje Oenema – 500m
Margot Boer - 500m, 1000m, 1500m
Annette Gerritsen – 500m, 1000m, 1500m
Laurine van Riessen – 500m, 1000m, 1500m
Ireen Wust – 1000m, 1500m, 3000m
Renate Groenewold – 3000m
Diane Valkenburg - 1500m, 3000m, 5000m
Elma de Vries – 3000m, 5000m
Jorien Voorhuis – 5000m


Ice-skating trivia

· The Dutch heir-to-the-throne, Prince Willem Alexander, skated the Elfstedentocht under the pseudonym, A.W. van Buren in 1986.

· The “Schaatsmuseum” (Skating Museum) in Hindeloopen is home to the toe of Tinus Udding, after it froze off in the coldest Elstedentocht ever in 1963.

· Bart Veldkamp, originally a Dutchman, became a Belgian to increase his chances of success. He brought home a bronze medal for Belgium in the 1998 Winter Games – their first Olympic medal in speed skating.

· 8 Olympic records were smashed at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Jochem Uytdehaage of Utrecht broke two world records in the 5,000m and 10,000m.

· Calgary Games, 1988, marked the opening of the first covered ice stadium where 17 of the 30 world records in speed skating have been set.

· The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics will host six ladies’ speed skating events from February 14 to 27: 500m, 1000m, 1500m, 3000m, 5000m and the Team Pursuit.


By: Dawn Nicholson

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