Why Are the Dutch So Good at Speed Skating?

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When Olympics broadcasters were predicting each nation's medal count, not many people thought the Netherlands would be battling for the lead. (They were in pole position 13 days in and, as of press time, they're tied for second.) Even more incredible, the Netherlands has accumulated 21 of its 22 medals in one sport: long-track speed skating. The lone non-long-track speed skating medal? Short-track speed skating.

By taking 70 percent of all possible medals there are to collect in speed skating, the Netherlands’ performance is the most dominant by any nation in any Olympics discipline in Winter Olympics history.

How did they get so good?

Famous for being located below sea level and held up through a system of dikes, the Netherlands is a place with a low water table and many lakes and rivers. Additionally, the Netherlands is one of the most urbanized nations, and cities like Amsterdam and Delft rely heavily on canals for transportation. In the wintertime, the Dutch have for years skated long distances along those canals and frozen rivers to get around locally or even visit neighboring towns.

Proof of this tradition is the Elfstedentocht race (how often it's held depends on ice conditions; sometimes in consecutive years, sometimes with more than 20 years between contests). The 120-mile race runs around the perimeter of the Dutch province of Friesland and stops in 11 cities. It dates back to 1909, when it was an organized tour, although people were skating the course as far back as the 18th century. The King of the Netherlands himself completed the event in 1986.

The inaugural world speed skating championship in 1893 grew out of the Amsterdam Skating Club, and the competition only had two non-Dutch entrants. The event’s first all-around winner was Jaap Eden, who became one of the country’s most famous sports icons and one of Europe's first athletic superstars. It also helped his legend that he won the world cycling championship the following year and set many world records. Amsterdam’s Jaap Eden baan bears his name and was the country’s first artificial 400 meter ice rink. It's also one the world's most famous.

Why did the Dutch focus their love of ice skating specifically into competitive speed skating? Speed Skating World editor and Dutch speed skating enthusiast Irene Postma explained in an interview with the International Business Times that the national love for the sport dates to the 1968 Olympics. It was then that two charismatic Dutch speed skaters, Ard Schenk and Kees Verkerk, captured the nation's imagination with medal-winning performances just as the sport was being televised. It wasn't just their athleticism, but also their sportsmanship that inspired the Dutch.

An example of how big the sport is in the Netherlands is that U.S. speedskater Shani Davis is virtually unknown on the streets of his native Chicago during non-Olympic years, but he's considered a hero whenever he goes to Holland.

Today, Holland has eight different professional speed-skating clubs and over twenty long-track ice rinks (the standard size for Olympic competition), while the U.S. has only six such tracks and no professional clubs. Don't expect the Dutch to lose their competitive advantage any time soon.