In all my years of racing on the World Cup circuit I would guess that I have raced in Heerenveen – the Mecca of speed skating – at least twenty times, perhaps more. The Netherlands is the one place on earth where the genes of the people of have evolved to the point where speed skating has actually been implanted into their DNA (this has been scientifically proven). The sport is in their blood, their brains, and their hearts. It is in their very essence of being.
The country has a long history of speed skating racing. In the early days it was all played out along the endless canals that meticulously cut throughout the countryside and stretch from town to town. There is one famous race called the Eleven Cities Tour, or “Elfstedentoch”. When it gets cold enough in the winter for all the canals to freeze, there is a one-day marathon race through eleven small towns and the winner is fantastically celebrated across the country. One man won the race twice in a row and became so famous he had to move his family to a small town in rural Alberta to resume a normal life.
With such a rich history and culture of speed skating, the Dutch are naturally among the very best in the world. Many would argue that they are categorically the best speed skating nation on the planet. In recent years the nature of the sport has changed there, such that all of the top skaters are now members of professional teams, with mega salaries, mega resources and, according to some, mega egos.
They are incredibly successful, talented and nationally celebrated superstars, much like our NHL hockey players are in Canada. When they race in Heerenveen they are on fire. They are dramatic (some might say melo) and intense. One could argue that there is at least a small amount of eye rolling from other nations when witnessing these theatrics, but when you consider the market for the sport, it is only natural that the best in the world will play it up for the frenzied home crowd. They skate to win, end of story.
Needless to say it is not like this elsewhere in the world. There are no pro speed skating teams in Canada. We have an open sponsor spot on one leg – unheard of in the Netherlands – and we have it good. Many countries have even fewer funds and resources, relatively speaking, to compete with the big Dutch machine.
In spite of that there are a great many talented champions from other nations that regularly give the Dutch a run for their money. However most of the sponsors of the World Cup events are Dutch, as are the media partners and suppliers. The highest ratings of televised speed skating competitions undoubtedly come from the Netherlands. No matter how you slice it, the lifeblood of the sport is entrenched in the Dutch psyche.
Regardless of the latest gossip ‘du jour’ or the most recent scandal in the news, it is always a thrill to race in Heerenveen. The fans know and understand the intimate details and rules of engagement of the sport so thoroughly they respond en masse with the slightest gasp or deafening cheer to any and all events that unfold before their eyes. The very best and most dedicated fans fill the stands around the corners of the rink. The corners are just concrete steps and there are no actual seats; it is standing room only. They line up for hours in advance to get the best spots closest to the ice. When the doors are opened they pour in like a flash flood.
Up to five thousand people can fit into one corner and the rink is at capacity with about fourteen thousand people. They stand for hours on end cheering on not only their Dutch skaters, but also every skater from every nation. They cheer when a skater achieves a personal best. They cheer when someone falls and gets up to finish the race. They even cheer when a skater is racing on their birthday. They make clever signs for their favourites, dress in bright orange and wear funny hats. They do the wave, they sing songs and they never, ever let up. They also do it right: with a beer in one hand and a Netherlands flag in the other.
For all the occasional grumbling we might do about the Dutch and how good they have it, we cannot live without them. The sport would not survive on its otherwise obscure existence in other countries. I recently experienced the great thrill and satisfaction of winning the overall World Cup title in the 1500m – meaning I finished the World Cup season with the most points in the 1500m, my first ever title!
Only in the Netherlands would they organize a grand and elaborate victory ceremony complete with confetti, music, giant trophies and the best of all, a victory lap for all title winners around the track on the back of a Harley trike. Not one fan left the building, opting instead to stay and cheer on all the winners, even me! Nowhere else in the world would this have happened, and for that I tip my hat to the Dutch: to the skaters, the coaches, the fans and their heartwarming obsession with my chosen sport.