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 first installment, Dutch Speed Skating and the Early Years of the Elfstedentocht, can be found here. The third installment, How the Loss of the Elfstedentocht has Fueled Olympic and International Dominance, appears tomorrow morning.
Surprise Victory, Shared Victory
It would be 12 more years before the fourth edition was able to take place, warm winters preventing de Koning from a third shot at the crown. By the time the field returned to Leeuwarden on February 12, 1929, a fresh crop of contenders had developed over the intervening decade. They arrived in Friesland on a day where temperatures would not rise above the low teens. The sheets of ice would be in prime skating condition, though the wind and the air would make staying warm a paramount concern.
Eventual winner Karst Leemburg had started off in the front from his home city of Leeuwarden, but by the time he reached Harlingen he was already 20 minutes behind leaders Cor Jongert and Nico Pronk. More concerned about boosting his core temperature than what seemed like a rapidly dwindling chance for victory, Leemburg stopped in Harlingen to accept his uncle’s invitation to sit for a cup of coffee.
Leemburg, like de Koning a dozen years earlier, was approaching his 40th birthday. Unlike the two-time champion of the 1910s, though, Leemburg had hardly been as heralded a contender prior to the start of the competition. He had never medaled in international competition, and at the 1928 Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland he had been left off the Dutch team in favor of Siem Heiden and Wim Kos.
After visiting with his uncle, Leemburg took back to the canal and continued his way around the loop. What transpired was one of the most remarkable comebacks in a race of any type in modern sports history. 40 kilometers down the course in Hindeloopen, it was neither Jongert nor Pronk in the lead but, improbably, Leemburg at the head. In 25 miles, a 20-minute deficit (prior to his coffee break) had flipped to an 18-minute lead.
Leemburg would remain out front until the finish in Leeuwarden, sacrificing a few minutes by the end but still greeted by thousands. For the first time in Elfstedentocht history, a native son of the finishing city had claimed the crown. It would come at a price, though, as Leemburg would later have to have a toe amputated due to frostbite suffered during the race.
Five years later, the earliest Elfstedentocht on record would take place on December 16, 1933. To date, it is the only time in the event’s history it has been hosted prior to the turn of the calendar into the new year. In the first 25 years of the event, the Frisian cities had enjoyed just five opportunities to host their climate-dependent festival. After four clear-cut finishes, it would finally be forced to deal with a different scenario altogether — that of two skaters consciously finishing side-by-side at the finish line.
25 years earlier, at the inaugural edition of the Elfstedentocht, President Hijlkema of the organizing committee IJsbond would tell the competitors, “You really should not regard this as a competition.”
A quarter century later, the new organizers were insistent that a champion be named. Initially the Frisian judges declared Abe de Vries the winner, but they would later elevate Sipke Castelein to joint ownership of the title after protest from de Vries. At first both men had thought themselves to be behind Ype Smid, who had built a 10-minute lead over the field by Frankener. After catching and passing Smid, the two skaters stayed together to the finish and shared the victory in the spirit of camaraderie invoked by Hijlkema more than two decades before.
A Trio of Wartime Races
Even as Europe was forced to deal with World War II and the aftermath of battle during the 1940s, it proved the greatest decade in the history of the Elfstedentocht. Four times from 1940 to 1949, conditions proved cold enough and the ice was thick enough to allow the Frisian cities to host the skating festival. This would be the period where the race evolved from a niche event to a nationwide celebration of skating.
In 1940, nearly six times as many starters as had taken part in the 1933 race would start out from Leeuwarden. Even though heavy snowfall — which insulates the canal ice and prevents it from fully reaping the benefits of sub-freezing temperatures — postponed the race several times from its original December 21 schedule, nearly 3000 competitors and touring skaters would take to the canals once the conditions were finally ripe on January 30. While neighboring Germany prepared its invasion of Denmark and Norway, thousands of Dutch professionals and amateurs took to the Frisian ice for the first Elfstedentocht in seven years.
Snowfall and wind would test the skaters’ resolve over the 125 miles of iceThe day would foster a spirit of camaraderie, a sort of subconscious repudiation of the gross militarization taking place next door. For the second straight Elfstedentocht, on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of the Netherlands four months later, multiple skaters shared victory on their triumphant return to Leeuwarden.
In a fraternal pact between five skaters that would go down in legend as the Pact of Dokkum, the leading quintet agreed to cross the finish line united. Cor Jongert, who had already taken second to Leemburg in the 1929 edition and fourth behind Castelein and de Vries in 1933, pitched it to the group in the city of Dokkum, just 25 kilometers from the finish. Initially Sjouke Westra objected to the agreement, but Jongert’s reputation carried the day as he rode side-by-side with Westra, Auke Adema, Piet Keijzer, and Durk van der Duim over the frozen canals into Leeuwarden.
Maybe Jongert — then already 43 years old, likely unsure of his finishing sprint against skaters who were all at least 10 years younger than him, and even more uncertain that he would get the right conditions again in the waning years of his career to skate another Elfstedentocht — was just trying to guarantee a victory after coming close twice already a decade earlier. Maybe it was genuine sincerity on his part, his opportunity to make a bigger statement. But in the final hundred-meter stretch, the pact crumbled. Adema sprinted clear, Keijzer gave chase, and the remaining trio bolted after the pair trying to salvage a lost race.
At first Adema would be declared the winner, though photo evidence showed Keijzer clearly over the line first. Ultimately the Association of the Eleven Frisian Cities would award the top billing to all five men equally. Retroactive evidence favors Keijzer’s case, the initial ruling favored Adema, and the final ruling tried to set an interesting example by forcing the group to respect the pact made between them.
This would not become a binding precedent, however. The following year Adema left nothing to chance, taking advantage of a mild day with lighter winds than the previous year and temperatures hovering right around the freezing point to finish with the fastest time then on record. Needing just 9 hours, 19 minutes, Adema secured outright victory by three minutes over Joop Bosman. All told, more than 1600 skaters total would complete the course, with the compact ice and relatively temperate weather yielding record turnouts despite (or perhaps due to) the ongoing war that had swept into the Netherlands.
1942 would once again be a cold year, and skaters returned to Friesland for the Elfstedentocht for a third straight winter. This time three skaters would return to Leeuwarden together, but there would be no camaraderie this time. Sietze de Groot would outkick Durk de Jong by nine seconds in the final meters of the long race, with Jan van der Bij less than 45 seconds behind the winning time. All three men would finish 35 minutes faster than Adema’s winning time from the previous year, the pristine ice allowing more than a dozen skaters to break the record.
Cheating and Controversy
After three straight winters of incredible fortune, the luck ran out in 1943 as the canals failed to freeze to the minimum 15 centimeters required to ensure the safety of skaters along the route. Competitors would have to wait five years, when the Elfstedentocht returned to the winter sports calendar. With World War II concluded, Europe was at peace — and rules went out the window in Friesland.
Before the ninth edition of the race commenced, it had already been clouded by controversy as the organizers repeatedly tinkered with the event’s spot on the winter calendar. Originally planned for two days before Christmas in 1946, the organizers continually faced rapid thaws in the southern reaches of Friesland and were forced to delay several times. By February, snow had nearly threatened the final proposed date of the event on the 8th.
Many touring skaters were also turned away by the Association’s announcement that only those skaters finishing within two hours of the winner’s time would earn a Elfstedentocht cross for completion of the distance. The prevarications and reversals of tradition led many to stay away from Leeuwarden rather than risking another cancellation, and just over 2000 skaters — less than half the number that had started the event five years before, during wartime occupation — took off on what would prove to be the coldest day of the Frisian winter.
Once the race commenced, the shenanigans persisted. Jan Charisius, part of the leading group through Sloten, was later found unconscious on the ice after hitting his head in a fall; no foul play has ever been proven. As skaters encountered poor ice conditions in Parrega, they were shuttled to better areas along the route by car and motorbike; regulations require that skaters walk through these “kluning points” to solid ice. The winner, Joop Bosman, and six of the top seven finishers would be disqualified, and the organizers awarded the retroactive victory to fifth-placed Jan van der Hoorn.
Perhaps it was for the best that the Elfstedentocht had to wait seven more years for its tenth edition. In the interim, the Association of the Eleven Frisian Cities set in place more rigorous standards to minimize cheating by skaters, installing hidden stamp points to verify that registered participants had completed the course as laid out. The Association worked as well as to streamline the process of preparing for the race, setting in motion the preparations each summer to make it easier to set a final date if and when ice returned. The planning seemed to pay off in 1954, as the race went off without any major scandal either before or during the festivities.
Winner Jeen van den Burg shaved over an hour off Sietze de Groot’s record time, and just as they had when de Groot set his record dozens of skaters would take advantage of perfect skating weather to obliterate the former mark. A crash on the finishing sprint over the Bonkevaart would allow van den Burg to finish ahead of Aad de Koning (son of former Dutch champion Sjaak de Koning and nephew of 1912 and 1917 Elfstedentocht champion Coen de Koning). Behind the first two followed Charisius, who would make it to the end after his concussion in 1947 but once again suffered a fall that eliminated his chances of victory.