In an era of man-made snow and tropical Winter Olympics, it is sometimes hard to remember that winter sports are at their heart a product of a specific set of climatic conditions falling into place just right to allow for diversions on the snow and ice. Few events magnify this reality more than the obsession of the speed-skating-mad Netherlands, the Elfstedentocht.
This week we will investigate the race and its impact on the sport in the national consciousness of the Dutch — and, in turn, how the relative rarity of the race has forced the Dutch inside and led to their growing dominance on the ovals of international speed-skating competitions. The second installment, How the Elfstedentocht Evolved from Frisian Pastime to Dutch Obsession, comes out tomorrow, with the final chapter, How the Loss of the Elfstedentocht has Fueled Olympic and International Dominance, to follow on Thursday.
On Wednesday, January 29, the weather didn’t get above freezing in Leeuwarden, the capital city of the northern Dutch province of Friesland. Then it stayed below the freezing point in the city through the following day. What if the mercury in Frisian thermometers had continued to plummet into the month of February? What if the canals had developed enough ice to safely skate?
Would Sven Kramer, Jan Blokhuijsen, and Jorrit Bergsma have toed the line and swept the 5000m race at Adler Arena in Sochi if the ice was thick enough in Friesland on February 8? Would Bob de Jong have flown home from Sochi and missed his chance to win a medal in the 10000m race if the Koninklijke Vereniging De Friesche Elfsteden (Association of the Eleven Frisian Cities) had been blessed with the conditions to call for the Elfstedentocht — a 200-kilometer race on canal ice between the 11 cities of Friesland — to commence on February 18?
How many fewer medals would the Dutch have brought home from Sochi if the temperature stayed just a few degrees colder in their northernmost province? After all, for skaters from the various regions of the Netherlands, it is not an Olympic gold medal that captures the imagination but a silver cross.
Throughout the Netherlands, ice skating is a pastime beloved by much of the populace. Short, sharp periods of winter have been punctuated by the clack of skate blades on frozen canals, a tradition passed down from generation to generation over the centuries.
As early as the 16th century, when metal skate blades were first developed, skating was a standard winter mode of transportation around the waterlogged northern regions of the present-day Netherlands. The first documented instance where skaters traveled between the 11 main cities of Friesland on a single winter day was chronicled in a 1749 poem. Over a century before the formation of the modern Olympic movement, an athletic revolution had been born on the windswept Frisian ice in the form of the Elfstedentocht (literally “11-City Tour” in the Frisian dialect).
Thus it had never been the Olympics that have been the main source of the nation’s captivation until recently; the Dutch failed to reach the podium at the first five editions of the Winter Olympics. It wasn’t until the Oslo Games of 1952, when Wim van der Voort took silver in the 1500m and Kees Broekman was second in both the 5000m and 10000m races, that the Netherlands saw its flag hoisted up during a Winter Olympic medal ceremony in any sport. The country has matured since then as a force at international competitions, but even admitting that fact they were still not projected to steal away as much of the glory as they did at the Sochi Games.
Dutch speed skaters would end up hauling away eight of the 12 gold medals offered in long-track speed-skating at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Of 36 possible medals overall, the Netherlands claimed 23. In nearly every race, the competition was not between Dutch skaters and the rest of the world but a battle between compatriots.
Prior to last month, the Dutch had never before swept an Olympic podium. In Sochi they did it four times — the men swept the 500m, 5000m, and 10000m races, while Dutch women took all three medals in the 1500m race. In every race, at every distance, for both the men and the women, at least one Dutch skater reached the podium.
It is interesting insomuch as a generation of Olympians has basically grown up without the opportunity to compete in the Elfstedentocht. Since 1997 it is an elusive goal that has never panned out, and the hardiest of long-distance skaters have turned their attention to the relatively short five- and 10-kilometer races instead of spending long hours on the canals that once offered annual respite from the dreariness of winters on the north Atlantic.
As a race, the event was first conceived in 1890 by Pim Mulier, a leading figure in early modern Dutch sport and the inaugural president of the International Skating Union. Since Mulier first dreamed it up, the Elfstedentocht has been officially held just 15 times.
Mulier is a fascinating character. Born on a small estate in Friesland, the son of a town mayor and Frisian regent, Mulier moved with his family to the city of Haarlem when he was two years old. The city was a petri dish in which his love of sports was able to flourish. He would be exposed to English football at a young age — Mulier would be part of the group that organized the nation’s first football club, Haarlem FC, which existed for over a century before going bankrupt in 2010. He was also instrumental in the 1889 formation of the Dutch Football Association.
Over his life, in addition to serving as the ISU’s first president, Mulier would also serve as the president for the Dutch Athletics Union, the Dutch Football Association, and Haarlem FC; play a critical role in the introduction of hockey, skiing, cricket, tennis, and other sports to the Netherlands; and was a member of the Dutch Olympic Committee. Dedicated to the lifelong pursuit of expanding athletic opportunities in the Netherlands, Mulier would survive long enough to see Dutch skaters win Olympic silver in Oslo before passing away at age 89 in 1954.
The Inaugural Race
Mulier was nothing if not meticulous about his passions and a patient seeker of success. After dreaming up the Elfstedentocht as a formalized competition, he would have to wait 19 years until the conditions were right for the inaugural edition. Only a last-minute decision to move up the date allowed the race to come to fruition as more than one man’s imagination.
On January 2, 1909, with the ice already starting to thaw once again after a cold spell, 23 skaters left Leeuwarden early in the morning to contest the first Elfstedentocht. Originally planned for January 5, local organizers — wanting to take advantage of freezing conditions and high-quality ice — pushed the date ahead three days to the second day of the new year. The abrupt shift of the calendar left many anxious skaters on the outside, the January 1 registration deadline suddenly moot thanks to the shift.
48 skaters would register in time for the race, but already by January 2 ice conditions were starting to soften. Fewer than half of the registered skaters would take to the ice on the day of the race, and winner Minne Hoekstra — a 24-year-old theology student and the son of skate makers from the village of Warga outside Leeuwarden — would need nearly 14 hours to complete the 189-kilometer course. “In many places,” Hoekstra would write in his award-winning account of the journey, “there is so much water that it runs over my shoes…. in the middle (of the ice) a mass of water is bubbling out of a deep fissure, flying along the right bank.”
Three years later, the newly-formed Association of the Eleven Frisian Cities would have its first opportunity to stage the Elfstedentocht.
The First Elfstedentocht Legend
In 1912, the Elfstedentocht would once again take place on rapidly-deteriorating ice. It would also feature the rise of a Dutch legend.
1905 world all-around speed skating champion Coen de Koning was one of the 65 starters who arrived in Leeuwarden for the eventual start of the race. Twice the date of the event had been pushed back from its originally scheduled January 20 running due to melting in the canals, causing the field to dwindle as it had in 1909. But with conditions firming up, the Frisian authorities deemed the canals suitable for racing on February 7.
Temperatures would hover near 40°F on the day of the race. Six years earlier, de Koning had set the world hour record in Davos, Switzerland, skating 32.37 kilometers in 60 minutes. Now approaching his 33rd birthday, the skater from Edam was forced to contend with soft ice and rain throughout the day as the field of entrants traveled along the 189-kilometer route.
The conditions, though far from ideal, were suitable enough for de Koning to build up a 15-minute lead by the finish. Only one other competitor, Jan Ferwerda of Leeuwarden, would finish in fewer than 12 hours.
The 1914 edition would have to be called off due to rapid thaw in the ice, delaying de Koning’s title defense until three years later. As the First World War raged through Europe, the Frisian cities prepared to host the third edition of the Elfstedentocht on January 27, 1917. Despite being two months shy of his 40th birthday on the day of the race, de Koning was still heavily favored. Jan Ferwerda, the man who had lost to de Koning in 1912, said before the race had begun, “Coen de Koning wins this Elfstedentocht; if not, then you can order a coffin for him.”
For the first time, the field had expanded into triple digits as 108 riders left Leeuwarden on the morning of the 27th. Sjoerd Swierstra would be the competition that worried de Koning the most as the hundred-strong skaters pushed off down the canal toward Dokkum. The two men would push the pace, distancing themselves far from the rest of the field.
With temperatures staying below freezing throughout the day of the race, the ice was more solid than in the two previous editions of the Elfstedentocht. Subsequently, de Koning and Swierstra were able to shave significant time off the 1912 times. Successfully defending his title, de Koning would become the first person to visit all 11 Frisian cities in less than 10 hours when he stopped the clock at 9 hours, 53 minutes — nearly four hours faster than Minne Hoekstra’s winning time eight years earlier.
Swierstra, who had been the closest to de Koning throughout the day, would finish in second place, 28 minutes behind the two-time champion. In two of the next three editions, Swierstra’s time of 10:21 — which was more than 40 minutes faster than third-placed Gerrit van der Leij’s time — would have been good enough to capture victory. But against de Koning, the man from Offingawier never really had a chance.