Speed Skating

Chris Iorfida - Monday Feb. 17, 2014 20:43 ET

Sven Kramer looks to pad Olympic record for Dutch skaters

One nation dominating ahead of Tuesday's 10K, North Americans fizzling

Sven Kramer in the men's 5,000m
Sven Kramer of the Netherlands skates during the men's 5,000-metre speed skating race Saturday at the Adler Arena during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

Speed skating star Sven Kramer set the tone for what was to come, and beginning Tuesday he'll look to put an exclamation point on the stunning Dutch dominance at Adler Arena.

Kramer is the favourite in the 10,000 metres, the furthest distance raced in Olympic long track, and he'll lead the way for his country in the men's team pursuit on the weekend.

The 27-year-old from Heerenveen set an Olympic record at 5,000 metres in the very first race of the Sochi competition on Feb. 8, leading to the first of three medal podium sweeps for skaters from the Netherlands.

The team from Holland has amassed five gold medals and 16 medals overall at Sochi, smashing the speed skating record set by East Germany in a 10-race Olympics in 1988 in Calgary.

It's not out of the realm of possibility that Dutch skaters go 1-2-3 again on Tuesday, according to Canadian Jordan Belchos, who skates the 10K on the World Cup circuit.

“If they were allowed, they could have eight of the 10 fastest [at the distance],” said Belchos.

Over the past two seasons, the Dutch have accounted for 80 per cent of the podium spots at 10,000 metres, with Seung-Hoon Lee of South Korea the only international skater with more than one podium finish.

Kramer’s strongest rivals on the World Cup circuit have been compatriots Jorrit Bergsma and Bob de Jong.

“Those three Dutch guys, they all do things sometimes that kind of blow my mind, they're that good,” said Belchos.

The latest insult to injury for the competing nations on long track occurred Sunday when a woman who competed the day before - in short track speed skating - smashed an Olympic record and won the long track 1,500. Jorian Ter Mors of the Netherlands led the first top-four sweep by one country in a Winter Games sport since the Germans owned luge in 1972.

Over 90 per cent of the Netherlands’ medals historically have come in speed skating, and it’s hard to believe now that the Dutch dipped to one gold and eight medals overall at the two Olympics held just two years apart to begin the 1990s.

Clearly the commitment to the sport at all levels was renewed in the country, which resides at sea level, with skating- and cycling-friendly infrastructure.

At Salt Lake City and Turin, skaters from North America were on competitive footing, tallying eight gold and 24 Olympic medals overall.

It's very conceivable that Canadian Denny Morrison's two medals, neither gold, will comprise the entire Americas total at the Sochi Games.

Must(n’t) be the suits

The U.S. media has been doggedly pursuing and leading with the story of the ill-conceived suits the Americans wore for the first time in Russia. The suits didn’t seem to decrease air resistance, and at the very least, were introduced to the team on the eve of their most major competition.

It seems, however, a red herring in a sea of orange as this convergence of Dutch dominance and North American struggles may have been brewing for some time, perhaps compounded by decisions made this season.

For starters, Canada and the U.S. simply haven’t had the depth of their rivals to adequately replace retired stars like Cindy Klassen, Kristina Groves, Chad Hedrick and Joey Cheek. The Americans have seen only over the last two years the emergence of Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe for a women’s group that last won an individual Olympic medal in 2002.

At last year’s single distance championships on the very same Sochi track, with nary a peep about the (old) U.S. suits, the Netherlands won half of the 12 gold medals awarded and 13 in total. Recent dominant champions Shani Davis of Chicago and Christine Nesbitt of London, Ont., did not win gold as the North American skaters totalled just four medals.

If there was one race that looks in retrospect like a harbinger of the Olympics, it was the women’s 3,000 metres. On the World Cup circuit the past two seasons, the top two spots have faithfully been taken by Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic and Claudia Pechstein of Germany. But they were surpassed at the 2013 event and at the Sochi Games by Ireen Wust of the Netherlands.

The Sochi facility has been an acquired taste, to say the least.

Nesbitt last summer expressed her annoyance to CBC Sports over the orange seating that gives the psychological feel of a home rink for Holland’s best. In addition, the oval was designed by a Dutchman, although this isn’t the only track in the world on his résumé.

Training, travel and competition choices will be second guessed as a result of the whitewash. The major training centres in North America are in Calgary and Salt Lake City, each more than 1,000 metres above sea level.

Skaters can glide more at altitude, and have to change their technique on “slow tracks” at sea level like Sochi. For all the Dutch skaters have accomplished in Russia, only Kramer and Ter Mors have set Olympic records.

Kramer vs. Kramer

As for travel, the likes of Davis, Nesbitt and Richardson of the U.S. headed to Japan for the sprint championships in January. The Dutch sent skaters there too, of course, but travelled less distance. More importantly, the ones that went aren’t neatly corresponding to those taking gold and silver in Sochi.

If adding to the gaudy total wasn’t enough motivation for Tuesday’s race, Kramer still chafes at a coach’s mistake at the Vancouver Games which likely cost him gold. He crossed over lanes at the wrong time, was disqualified, and the Korean Lee captured gold.

Skaters on Tuesday somehow looking to buck the prevailing trend include Germans Patrick Beckert and Bart Swings, and Alexis Contin of France. Canada did not qualify a competitor at 10K.

The Netherlands account for three of the 14 skaters, with the Norwegians pulling out en masse to focus on team pursuit this weekend.

The rest of the groups gathered at Adler must be thankful that unlike luge or bobsled, the Netherlands get only one entry in the team pursuit.

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