As it currently stands it is undeniable that the Dutch have a stranglehold on speed skating events at this years Winter Olympics in Sochi. Dutch skaters have crushed the field in both men’s and women’s events from the 500 to the 1,500. They have amassed 16 speed skating medals while second place Canada has only two. In a sport where medals are determined by thousandths of a second the Dutch just cannot seem to lose.
Is it something in the water?
What conditions are present in the Netherlands which make the sport of speed skating so attractive? The answer (until recently) was the emergence of so called “kernploeg”. It was a team of six skaters that were subsidized by the Dutch skating union to train for European, Olympic and World championship events. However this “kernploeg” still does not explain the dominance of the Dutch since there are more than six world class skaters on their team this year alone.
Enter Rintje Ritsma. In the mid 1990’s he along with Falko Zandstra essentially privatized the sport of speed skating in the Netherlands. They left the “kernploeg” to start their own teams. While these moves were met with some push back from the union, the sport as a whole benefited immensely. The union reorganized their structure to appropriate funding to sprint events. The number of teams also increased as the sport became more popular. Similar to any other industry the privatization of speed skating led to an influx of skaters. This year there were 77 skaters on eight different teams, far more than most countries. This sort of increased competition has indefinitely had an impact on results.
It is important, however, to recognize that privatization is not the only avenue for success. Despite the massive investments made by China and Russia, the Netherlands still have had unbelievable success. Public reception of the sport in the home country has played a large role in determining success. For now it seems as though the Dutch will continue to dominate speed skating, but maybe another Scandinavian country will be able to replicate the success in coming years.
Can the Dutch be stopped? Does making a sport more lucrative at home really mean that international success will follow?