Thursday, February 20, 2014

Hans Brinker, the Dutch Olympic Skating Success & Misconceptions in the Media

Hans Brinker, The Silver Skates
The Dutch Olympic team is on its way to achieving one of its best Winter Olympics. Sofar, the Dutch have won seventeen medailles: five gold, five silver and seven bronze. What  is going on? The international media have started to notice.

The Wall Street Journal states in its article "In Sochi, the Dutch Are Dominating the Overall Olympic Medal Count":

" The Netherlands winning  the overall medal race.This is absurd. The Netherlands has about 15 million people. They are competitive in a single Winter Olympic sport. Sunday brought more domination, as the Dutch swept the podium in speedskating's women's 1,500 meters. The Netherlands had 17 medals at day's end on Sunday, one more than the U.S. and Russia; 16 of those 17 have come in long-track speedskating. (The other? Short-track speedskating.)...........

 The Dutch have chosen one of the few sports that a country of the Netherlands' size could dominate, since only about five nations are even competitive in speedskating. The U.S.—which was very competitive in speedskating until this year, when it became obsessed with its wardrobe—only has a couple thousand competitive skaters of any age. If the Winter Games are about being opportunistic, then the Dutch deserve the gold medal for opportunism. The Netherlands should enjoy this moment of Olympic supremacy, even if it doesn't last another 24 hours."

The International Business Times tries to explain the Dutch success in its article "Winter Olympics 2014: Speed Skating Continues To Be Dominated By The Netherlands, But Why?":

"An extremely basic sport, speed skating isn't defined by the many intricacies that other sports require, and therefore it is viewed  in many parts of the world as boring or monotonous. Speed skaters travel in circles at about 35 miles per hour in a 400-meter oval, and much like distance runners or distance swimmers, the focus revolves around conditioning and technique rather than strategy........
How has one country dominated what amounts to as a niche sport? The answer is quite clear if you consider the culture of the nation of 15 million. In the Netherlands, skating long distances on ice is a common practice for many, making it only natural they would have interest in distance speed skating in the Olympics. In winter months, skating is a sensible form of transportation, as commuters skate along frozen canals to visit family or friends who live many villages away. Much of the country sits below sea level, so it’s frequently not a particularly arduous journey to travel by skates.

The Dutch begin wearing skates as toddlers, so for some, skating is as common as walking. Some travel for hours and hours on their skates and see nothing strange about it.................“Speed skating is not like any other sport in the Netherlands,” said Lars Hajema - a Dutch skating fan visiting Sochi - who could hardly contain his excitement after watching the 500 meters. “It brings our country together.”

Well this sounds all cute, like Dutch traveling for hours by skates to reach their far away friends or family living in little villages, but this is more fitting the 19th century novel, Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates by American writer Mary Mapes Dodge describing Dutch country life in those times. The international media attention also sounds a bit denigrating, as if skating is less worthwhile than similar basic sports such as running or swimming. Let's address the facts:

- yes, skating is a sport culturally embedded in the Netherlands and part of its rich history of sea fare, dikes, windmills, and the Elfstedentocht  (not different from many other sports in other countries: cricket in Great Britain, American Football in the US, Australian Rules Football in Australia, polo in Argentina, camel racing in the Middle East, chess in Russia and the list goes on)

- yes, a large part of the Netherlands is situated below sea level, and there are many rivers, lakes and canals, but cold winters are increasingly rare and most of its waters remain open in the winter. Actually, the Dutch do not do a lot of outdoors skating, let alone use it as a mode of public transportation.

 - however, the Dutch do have an extensive range of skating tracks and are increasingly professional in their approach to skating with professional coaches, teams with corporate sponsors, and the latest in design of  skates and streamlined clothing.

- last but not least, some of the other countries traditionally competitive in speed skating, such as Norway,  Russia, Sweden, and also the U.S. have been quite disappointing during these Olympics.

So, the reality offers enough good reasons for the Dutch to dominate this year's long-track speed skating. Although the Dutch will be proud of their achievements, other countries can rest assured that the Dutch dominance in the medal tally is unlikely to remain till the end of these Sochi Winter Olympics.

1 comment:

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