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Bob de Jong looked relieved more than anything. When the 37-year-old Dutch speed skater crossed the finish line at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics on Tuesday, he glanced at the clock to see if it was enough for a medal. It was.
“I’m really happy that I get one,” de Jong said of his bronze. “I didn’t want to be the only [Dutch] guy without a medal at these Games.”
Very funny, Bob. Seriously though, the Netherlands has been winning so many speed-skating races in Sochi it almost seems as if you need a Dutch passport just to get on the podium.
The trend continued Tuesday, with a medal sweep in the men’s 10,000-metres. It was the fourth time in nine events the Dutch have claimed all three spots on the podium – making it 19 of 27 long-track medals that will soon be boarding a KLM flight back to Amsterdam and Heerenveen.
But the Netherlands’ dominance has created a bit of a problem. Don’t get them wrong, the Dutch and their army of orange-clad fans like to win as much as the next country.
But even the Dutch are starting to feel a bit sheepish about claiming 70 per cent of the medals in one sport.
And it’s got them wondering what’s going on elsewhere.
Recently, a Dutch journalist posed a very serious question: “What’s happened to the Canadians?”
Canada has always been an international force on the long track. But aside from Denny Morrison’s two thrilling medal upsets at these Games, it has been a shadow of its former self.
It’s a question that actually worries the Dutch. Just like Canada can’t help fretting about the state of hockey, the Dutch worry about their national sport. Four years ago, Canada, South Korea and the Netherlands shared the bulk of the medal load. Now, it’s decidedly Dutch.
“It’s not good for skating,” the Dutch journalist said.
The truth is, the Dutch need Canada to be good. But other than Morrison’s silver in the 1,000 and bronze in the 1,500, Canada has been quiet in Sochi, with injuries to Christine Nesbitt and a host of young-up-and-comers still too green for the podium. After icing one of its best long-track teams at the 2010 Vancouver Games, the squad is undergoing what in hockey terms would be termed a rebuild.
The last thing the Dutch want, though, is for speed skating to end up like women’s hockey, which is has been criticized as being a two-nation tournament between Canada and the United States.
The problem is partly one of dollars. Skaters from the Netherlands pull in big sponsorships in their home country, in addition to healthy government grants for making the World Cup circuit, which creates a system of hyper-development that doesn’t exist elsewhere.
“The level of competition is very high in Holland, and that helps us a lot,” Dutch skater Michel Mulder said after winning the 500. “We grew up with it. Every little kid in the Netherlands does it.”
Of all the podium sweeps the Dutch have engineered here, their dominance in the 500 is the most important. Having always ruled the endurance events, the Dutch began focusing on developing sprinters after the Vancouver Games. Before last week, they hadn’t won a medal in the 500 since 1988, and never a gold. “We all knew this was a historic one,” Mulder said.
In Vancouver, the emergence of South Korea as a sprinting powerhouse was a big story. In Sochi, they are no match for the Dutch.
“We keep racing against each other and keep getting better and better. That’s the main advantage of the Dutchies,” said Ronald Mulder, bronze-medal winner in the 500 (and brother of Michel).
Jamie Gregg admitted it’s tough to compete against the Netherlands, but he’s reluctant to make excuses. The only solution is to be faster, the Canadian skater said.
“They’re professional athletes, they get big money to skate, and it’s hard to compete with that I think,” Gregg said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to increase our depth and try to catch them.”
Signs of Canada’s past prowess in long track are all around Sochi. Even though Holland’s Ireen Wust won gold in the 3,000 last week, she couldn’t top the world record set by Winnipeg’s Cindy Klassen in 2006. Nor could the Brothers Mulder touch the world record in the 500 owned by Calgary’s Jeremy Wotherspoon.
The fact Morrison is the only Canadian thus far to have the antidote for the Dutch dominance, may have something to do with his coach, Bart Schouten. Born in Haarlem, Netherlands, Schouten joined Canada’s program four years ago. His message is: Don’t fear the Dutch, race them. Allow yourself to be psyched out, and you will lose.
“With Denny, we don’t really care,” Schouten said. “I don’t think he’s intimidated by the Dutch. I tell him not to be. I’m not intimidated.”
But Jorrit Bergsma has some bad news for other countries. After winning gold in the men’s 10,000 on Tuesday, he basically told reporters: you think we’re good, you should see the guys that didn’t come to Sochi.
Much like Canada in hockey, the Dutch could probably ice three or four long-track teams at the Olympics.
“There are a lot of good skaters in Holland who didn’t qualify,” Bergsma said.