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Speed Skating

Kristina Groves - Thursday Feb. 20, 2014 13:24

Dutch speed skating success sets high bar for Canada

Netherlands' dominance 'joyous and discomforting'

Dutch speed skaters have dominated long track at the Sochi Olympics
Dutch speed skaters Sven Kramer, Jorrit Bergsma and Bob de Jong swept the podium for the men's 10,000-metre race at the Sochi Olympics on Wednesday. (Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images)

The domination of the Dutch in long track speed skating here in Sochi has been nothing short of extraordinary. To witness such overwhelming supremacy has been both joyous and discomforting.

With two events yet to come in long track, the Dutch have picked up 21 medals, including four podium sweeps. In Vancouver four years ago they managed seven medals, the most of any nation. Canada, by comparison, has two medals here in Sochi – a bronze and silver – from one athlete, Denny Morrison. The chance at team pursuit medals for the men and women is decent, but not a sure thing by any stretch.

Before these Games began there was the possibility that Canada’s long trackers could come home empty-handed. Morrison’s performance was a pleasant and much needed surprise. With the post-Vancouver departure of skaters like Clara Hughes, Cindy Klassen, Jeremy Wotherspoon, Mike Ireland and, dare I say, myself, who have historically performed well for Canada on the international stage, the deep and talented long track team naturally has been partially replaced with younger, less experienced skaters whose potential could take years to develop.

What have the Dutch done to establish such consistent strength? And should Canada try to copy it? No doubt, the rich history and culture of speed skating in the Netherlands has laid a wide and deep foundation for the sport to develop its talent pool. On that level, Canada cannot compete. But it is more than that.

Fifteen years ago the emergence of professional teams in the Netherlands, supported by corporate sponsorships, began to supplant the national team program. Over time the entire system has evolved to the point where pro teams are the status quo, which has subsequently spawned a relentless, almost rabid, quest for gold.

It is unlikely that such a system could be copied in many other countries around the world. In Canada, the corporate environment is just not interested in a fringe sport like speed skating, but there are components of the Dutch system that can still be duplicated.

Canada's building confidence

Thankfully, the distinguishing features I have observed on this Dutch Olympic team are not the result of big salaries, but rather a consequence of the mentality that the system has fostered. Most notable are the ability to handle and thrive under pressure brought about by the exceedingly high standard of excellence, as well as a professionalized coaching system at the development level.

It is clear that it is more difficult to make the Dutch Olympic team than it is to win an Olympic medal. Members of the professional teams incessantly fight to qualify for limited World Cup and Championships quotas and are constantly obliged to perform under pressure. Pressure becomes normalized and welcome; it brings out the best in all of them. Reaching the top of the Olympic podium remains the elusive prize, which is why we have seen so many shattered silver-medal winners from the Netherlands. They come only seeking gold.

It took decades to develop a similar mentality on Canada’s long track team. It started with Gaetan Boucher, Susan Auch, Jeremy Wotherspoon and Catriona LeMay Doan. Slowly Canada came to believe it could compete with the mighty Dutch and Germans, and even win. Add in Hughes and Klassen and you knew to make the team in Canada you had to be among the best in the world.

Until Clara and Cindy came along and started winning, I didn’t truly believe I could win either. But they raised the bar and raised me up, too, to the point where we became one of the teams to beat and everyone wanted to know the Canadians’ secret.

Now everyone wants to know the Dutch secret, but as we knew back then, there simply isn’t one. Their culture and system foster excellence to the point where it is completely normal to be devastated with Olympic silver and not gold.

Canada’s young long track speed skaters will need some time to develop. It should be noted that it took me seven years of racing on the World Cup circuit to win my first medal. Such a career trajectory would never exist in the Netherlands. The Dutch simply don’t need that time — there is always someone waiting in the wings to start out at the top.

But learning how to race under pressure and expecting only the best is not rocket science. Canada needs to develop a system conscientiously that inspires world-class performance from the many young, bright and promising skaters on the team today. The very future of the sport in Canada, and the world, depends on it.

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