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. Follow the links for the first two installments, Dutch Speed Skating and the Early Years of the Elfstedentocht and How the Elfstedentocht Evolved from Frisian Pastime to Dutch Obsession.
Kinship in Hell
1956 would bring back a controversial topic with which the race organizers had hoped was a relic of the past. Just as had occurred in 1940, harsh conditions plagued the skaters as poor ice conditions and subpar weather tormented each competitor. And just as it had played a role in the Pact of Dokkum in 1940, the hardships led the participants to view one another not as foes but as brothers-in-arms against the elements and the kilometers.
Despite the wind and the sub-freezing day, over 6000 people would start the Elfstedentocht in Leeuwarden. And though the ice was less than optimal, over 75 percent of the people who started the race would earn their silver cross back in Leeuwarden before the allotted time had run dry. At the front of the race, five athletes — Jeen Nauta, Jan van der Hoorn, Aad de Koning, Maus Wijnhout, and Anton Verhoeven — would agree to cross the line together as they passed De Vrouwbuurstermolen, one of the iconic windmills near the capital city of Friesland. They had been bonded by the struggles of the route, and together they glided along the final canals before the finishing straight.
Unfortunately, though, sports audiences are apt to tune out stories of hardship when the result is ambiguous. As the skaters arrived in Leeuwarden, a chorus of boos rained down on them as they failed to placate the crowd’s desire for a sprint up the Bonkevaart. The organizers were also less sympathetic this time around — instead of awarding victory to all five athletes, they instead disqualified the quintet. Defending champion Jeen van den Burg, though, would not be awarded the victory after finishing as the first skater behind the lead group; instead, the Association nullified the result and left their 11th Elfstedentocht without a winner.
After nullifying the result in 1956, the Association would have to wait seven more years before the conditions were ripe for another Elfstedentocht. January 18, 1963 was a bitterly cold day, with subzero temperatures at the morning start and freezing conditions throughout the day. And yet the event had truly become a national institution, with over 9800 skaters of all abilities converging on Leeuwarden to take a shot at completing the 122-mile course through Friesland.
So many people had come for the skate that the ice started to crack and well up water at the start. Escaping quickly, a lead group of the main contenders quickly accreted off the front, never to see the skating tourists of the grand procession behind until they all straggled into the Frisian capital that evening.
Midway through the race, Rainier Paping — a skater that had enjoyed nominal success throughout his career but who had hardly been a titan of the sport to that point — pulled away from fellow leaders Jeen van den Berg, Anton Verhoeven and Jan Uitham near Witmarsum. Dashing away on a daring solo breakaway in the teeth-chattering conditions, Paping would have nearly 100 kilometers of skating to endure by himself, long odds that were risky against a committed group of chasers.
And yet Paping continued to stretch out his lead, each kilometer offering new gains as he thrived in the inhumane conditions. Of the multitudes that started the competition, fewer than one percent of the starters would return home with an Elfstedentocht cross, but rather than deterring Paping it only emboldened the man from Dedemsvaart to continue soldiering back toward Leeuwarden. By the time he reached the Bonkevaart and crossed the finish, he had been skating in the coldest Elfstedentocht on record for just under 11 hours.
His nearest competition would come through 22 minutes later, a gap hearkening back to the early editions of the race. What the Association seemed unable to achieve by dictum and disqualification, the weather had accomplished. For the first time in nine years, there was certainly a definitive winner in the “Hell of ’63”. Only 69 of the nearly 10,000 starters would return to Leeuwarden within the time limit to receive the Elfstedentocht cross.
The Long Drought
And then there was nothingness. Little did those 69 people who succeeded through the slog of 1963 know that they would be the last recipients of the silver cross for a generation. For more than two decades, conditions in Friesland were too warm, winter after long winter, to allow for the celebration that is the Elfstedentocht to commence anew. Year after year the Dutch kept looking longingly at the weather reports, and year after year the temperature continued to vex the Frisian dream.
Is it any wonder that, in this environment, the Netherlands first started to experience widespread Olympic success? The nation’s first Winter Olympics gold medal would come in Grenoble in 1968 as Kees Verkeek took the title ahead of the co-silver medalists — his compatriot, Ard Schenk, and Norway’s Ivar Eriksen. Four years later in Sapporo, it was Schenk’s turn to conquer the Olympics when he swept the 1500m, 5000m, and 10000m races.
Schenk preceded Piet Kleine, who was followed in turn by skaters like Leo Visser and Bart Veldkamp. The current crop of up-and-coming Dutch skaters was weaned on the exploits of Gianni Romme and Jochem Uytdehaage, the poster boys for the switch in focus from the Elfstedentocht to the long-distance international races.
Still, when Mother Nature mercifully complied in 1985 and turned the canals to skating paths, it was not a professional speed skater but a 26-year-old farmer from a province near the German border who took advantage to win the first Elfstedentocht in 22 years. The previous year Dutch skaters had failed to take a single gold medal at the Sarajevo Olympics, and it almost appeared as though the dwindling opportunities for outdoor skating in the country were dissipating the number of talented children moving into the ranks of its Olympic team.
Evert van Benthem enjoyed the perfect timing for his ascension to the legendary status that comes with winning not just one but two Elfstedentochts. After the first attempt in 1985 was moved back from January 20, the date was set to February 21. Conditions were optimal on race day, with temperatures hovering around the freezing point but not too cold and the ice solid enough for more than 16,000 entrants into the field of participants.
The farmer from Leeuwte bested Henri Ruitenberg, Jos Niesten, and Jan Kooiman — three former Dutch marathon-skating champions — to set a new speed record on the same day that the first Elfstedentocht women’s championship was awarded officially to Lenie van der Hoorn. A year later, the race was on yet again and van Benthem had the good fortune to defend his title while still in his prime.
The be close until the latter stages, when van Benthem pulled away with Rein Jonker and Robert Kamperman. They would finish in that order, van Benthem ahead of Jonker by just over a minute and Kamperman by 90 seconds. In the process van Benthem equaled Coen de Koning and Auke Adema as two-time winners of the prestigious and rare race.
Since van Benthem’s double there has only been one more Elfstedentocht held, the 1997 version won by Henk Angenent on January 4 of that winter. And since 1986, the Dutch national speed-skating fortunes have escalated rapidly and exponentially.
Yvonne van Gennip would dominate the Calgary Olympics in 1988, winning three gold medals. In Nagano a decade later, Marianne Timmer dominated the women’s 1000m and 1500m races while Gianni Romme and Ids Postma claimed three of the five men’s golds. Now the Dutch speed skating team has won at least three gold medals at every one of the past five Winter Olympiads, and if the trend continues there might soon come a day when no other country manages to claim a long-track speed skating medal ahead of the machine-like skaters sent out by the Netherlands.
But what would happen if the Elfstedentocht had been on? Two years ago, Dutch skaters had threatened to skip the ISU World Championships when it looked as though the Elfstedentocht might make its first appearance on the sports calendar in 15 winters. With the Olympics recurring with metronomic regularity every quadrennial, the odds are good that at least one if not all of the long-distance specialists would take advantage of possibly the only lifetime opportunity to compete in the “Race of Races”.
With a women’s division, not only would skaters like Bob de Jong and Sven Kramer have mulled their shot at marathon glory, but skaters like Ireen Wust and Carien Kleibeuker would have been good bets to arrive in Leeuwarden rather than Sochi as well.
And had that been the case, perhaps we never hear about defective American skinsuits. Maybe Denny Morrison ends up winning two or even three gold medals. And it is imminently possible that Martina Sablikova could have done the same in the women’s distances. Warm weather has been a boon for the IOC, which has benefitted from the repeated appearance of better and better Dutch speed skaters with each passing Olympiad. And the climate has been the bane of a tradition born out of one dreamer’s whimsy and consolidated into a national institution.