Canada's Bloemen vs. Dutch rival Kramer could be 'one of the great 10k races of all time'
Bloemen holds world record, while world champion Kramer seeking elusive Olympic gold
By Nick Murray, CBC Sports
They were born in the same country, in the same year, and are two of the world's best athletes in their disciplines.
And if speed skating aficionados had gotten their wish, Canadian Ted-Jan Bloemen and Dutchman Sven Kramer would have been paired together. But that won't happen. Still, Thursday's 10,000-metre race (which starts at 6 a.m. ET) is setting up to be one of the all-time great races.
On one hand there's Bloemen, the world-record holder at the distance, coming off a silver-medal performance Sunday in the 5,000, second to Kramer.
And then there's arguably one of the greatest long track speed skaters ever in Kramer. The five-time 10,000 world champion has won a record nine consecutive world allround championships — the previous record was four — and an Olympic silver medal in the 10,000 in Sochi.
At 31 years old this could be Kramer's last Olympics, and the elusive 10,000 Olympic gold medal is the one jewel missing from his crown. He thought he had it in Vancouver in 2010, finishing first, only to be disqualified after his coach mistakenly directed him into the wrong lane.
While speed skating fans won't see a head-to-head race, both men are in the final two pairings, which could still set up a dramatic finish.
"There's been no challenger to Sven, other than his own teammate. All of a sudden there's this former Dutch skater, now Canadian, who's taken his world record away and looks like he could challenge him," said veteran CBC broadcaster Steve Armitage, who will have the call.
"There's a little bit of animosity between the two. And when I mentioned that animosity to somebody, they said, 'No no, it's not that. It's just a little tension.' Whatever that tension is, it has just set up what should be one of the great [10,000] races of all time."
While Bloemen downplayed his rivalry with Kramer, simply acknowledging how the two "really want to beat each other," Dutch media — which covers speed skating much like Canadian media covers hockey — call him Kramer's "greatest challenger."
It was Bloemen, after all, who broke both of Kramer's individual world records. In one case, quite literally snapping it.
The oval in Salt Lake City has a permanent board honouring the current world record holders at various distances.
After setting a new 5,000 world record in December in Salt Lake City Bloemen stirred up controversy by taking Kramer's placard with his name and previous record, and emphatically snapping it into pieces.
VIDEO | Canada's Ted-Jan Bloemen breaks Sven Kramer's record, and name plate in at Salt Lake City oval
"I am sure there is rivalry, but it is based on a mutual respect," said Canadian coach Bart Schouten.
"Ted breaking the name plate was just Ted wanting to literally 'break the world record,' it was not aimed at Sven."
"I honestly haven't spoken much with him over the years. I don't know him very well," Bloemen said when asked about his relationship with Kramer.
"We'll say hi to each other when we cross each other. But yeah, our paths don't cross very often."
Shouten also pointed to other skaters in medal contention, like Kramer's teammate and defending Olympic champion Jorrit Bergsma, and Germany's Patrick Beckert who's paired with Kramer in the final group.
Unlikely to match world record
Heading into the 10,000, Bloemen's goal is to get into a good rhythm, something he said he lacked in his silver-medal race on Sunday.
"Mentally, it's a different race," he said. "Because the lap times are a little bit slower on the 10k, it's easier to start, but it's a little bit harder to pace yourself.
"I went out a bit too fast [in the 5,000] and I didn't get into a good rhythm, and it becomes a fighting race. And for [5,000] it's easier to get away with that because it's relatively short. So it's really important you set a good pace in the first few laps so you don't go out too fast."
As for whether Bloemen is poised to match his world-record time, Armitage and Bloemen both say it's unlikely. Bloemen set the record in the thinner air of Salt Lake City, about 1,300 metres above sea level.
The Gangneung Oval in Pyeongchang is at sea level, where times are traditionally slower — Bloemen raced 10 seconds slower than his world record time in his 5,000 race.
Still, Schouten feels good about his team's conditioning.
"The closeness in days for the planning and execution of the high-altitude training camp should give Ted and [Canadian] Jordan [Belchos] a better possibility to transport oxygen to their muscles and you need that in a long distance race like the 10,000," Schouten said.