Edition 30 November 2017, by John Mahnen
Winter in the Netherlands hold its own special traditions: Speculaas flavoured everything and pea soup for example. Just the right fare to tuck into when watching the great winter sport tradition of speed skating. The Dutch have an unbridled obsession with speed skating. Like the Dutch, we will refer oval racing as simply ‘skating’ given the fact that the last Dutch person to win Olympic hardware in figure skating was an American by the name of Dianne de Leeuw who in 1976 on her Dutch birth right passport won Silver at the Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria.
This year, the skating calendar will be augmented with an important fixture starting on Boxing Day, Tuesday, 26 December until Saturday 30 December. In order to finalize the selection process, the Dutch skating federation, the KNSB, will organize an Olympic Qualifying Tournament for the upcoming Winter Games in Korea. The Olympisch Kwalificatie Toernooi (OKT), the qualifiers for the upcoming Winter Games in Korea will be held in the Thialf Stadium in Heerenveen. The temple of Dutch skating reopened its doors in 2016 after an extensive renovation.
The 2018 Winter Olympics will take place in PyeongChang, Korea from the 9th until the 25th of February. The skating competition will play out at the newly built Gangneung Oval. It is within the confines of this building that the Dutch Olympic team is expected to reap the bulk of its medal harvest. The Dutch will be looking to improve on their 2014 showing in Sochi, where they took 24 medals, won mainly on the ice in the Adler Arena Skating Center. From all the skating talent in Holland, a maximum of ten men and ten women will don the aerodynamic orange tights and represent their country in a sport which they have come to dominate on a world level. The OKT in Heerenveen will be used to pare down the talent pool to the select few who will have the chance at Olympic glory. Given what is at stake, the OKT is a very big deal and a very welcome addition to this year’s skating calendar. With the exception of the longest distances, there are three slots or ‘tickets’ available per Olympic skating distance. The longest distance for the men is 10,000 and for the women 5,000 and there are two tickets in the offing. The Winter Games in PyeongChang will feature the first Olympic mass start marathon but the selection process for that race falls outside the scope of the OKT. Overall, there are fewer places on offer than in 2014, a move by the world skating federation, ISU, to try to temper the dominance of the Dutch.
Each qualifying race brings its own unique dynamic. The men’s 500 meter event on day 3 will have many contenders such as Dai Dai Ntab, Ronald Mulder, Kai Verbeij and Hein Otterspeer, while the 10,000 will likely be far less intriguing with two of the tickets all but spoken for by Jorrit Bergsma and the biggest name in the sport: the nearly invincible Sven Kramer. Should Kramer not win for some reason – a fall for example – he would likely still be nominated by the Dutch skating federation to take part in the Olympic competition by means of a wildcard. The KNSB has three of these jokers to play in assembling the best hand for the Games. This would also be a likely scenario should one of the women with the stature of a Ireen Wüst not finish in the top two. Wüst will be strong contender in the 1500 on day 5 where she will likely join Jorien ter Mors on the Olympic squad. Ter Mors had her break out performance in Sochi where she took Olympic gold ahead of Wüst who was the reigning champion. Originally a short-tracker, she continues to oscillate between the two disciplines which makes her a very unique athlete. The tournament can be followed on television of course, with Dutch state broadcasted NOS providing lap-by-lap coverage. The telecast will also be streamed to the NOS website. For the full effect, a trip to Friesland offers spectators a chance to see the action close up and personal. Ticket prices are family friendly and a great chance to experience a slice of the Olympic games right here in the Netherlands – nicely timed between the turkey and champagne!