BRUSSELS (AP) — There is nothing more mythical in Dutch sports than an age-old 11-city race skating across lakes and canals in bone-numbing cold from dawn to dusk. No wonder the Netherlands is the greatest speedskating nation in the world.
And with Sven Kramer and Ireen Wust leading the way on the big Olympic oval in Sochi, they are bent on proving it again. Time and again over the last half century, the Dutch have been top or near the top of the Olympic speedskating standings — a nation of 16.8 million defying giants like the United States, Russia or Germany. In Sochi too, the Dutch have a realistic chance of a half dozen gold medals on the big oval.
They won more long-track speedskating medals than any other nation in Vancouver, and federation sporting director Arie Koops said the only way forward is to become even more dominating. "The goal is to improve on Vancouver. And considering our current level of form, that is a realistic goal," he told The Associated Press.
What makes the difference? Check out the Netherlands in early wintertime when ice coats the trees and the first film of frozen water turns into a resistant sheet. People get skates out of the cellar and attic, go out when they can, and all dream of if-and-when the Elfstedentocht — Eleven cities trek — marathon will be held.
"It is ingrained in our culture," said Peter Kolder, a youth coach of Kramer, who is a hot favorite to take three golds in Sochi. Even if the race happens only once in a generation when it is cold enough, kids go out by the tens of thousands, skating on countless canals and lakes in the hope that one day they might cross the finish line.
On such a tradition-bound foundation, the Dutch have smartly built a skating powerhouse that has made the sport second only to football as a national winter pastime. "Everyone is part of this world," Kolder said. "There is pressure to perform from young age. Look at the kids — they all want to become Sven."
Also, look at the surroundings. Much of the Netherlands is below sea-level, the country is criss-crossed with canals and lakes, making dunes and dikes often the highest natural points as far as the eye can see. It means there is no competition from any sport like Alpine skiing. Snow is so rare that Nordic events are non-existent.
So the Dutch have made the most of what they had to become a Winter Games contender. In the 1960s and early 1970s, when sports became a major television draw, they got some extra help from two great champions too.
The intense rivalry between Ard Schenk and Kees Verkerk not only yielded Olympic gold for the Netherlands, but also got the nation hooked on skating. Soon, throngs were following the stars around, to local and international competitions.
The whole world is awed by the vast stands full of orange-clad Dutch soccer fans at the World Cup. Skating ovals may hold fewer supporters, but the color orange is no less intense. "It creates this feeling of warmth, and some skaters have said that for them, it can make that vital tenth of a second in difference," said Ruud Bakker, leader of the oompah band Kleintje Pils, renowned for pushing atmosphere to the hilt at the Olympic speedskating oval.
It is not only fanatical fans that drive on Dutch skaters. Their country may have plenty of waterways, but many winters are not cold enough to turn them to ice. Instead, one of Europe's most prosperous nations has built an abundance of artificial tracks.
While other speedskating powers have to make do with only a handful of big man-made ovals, the Dutch have no less than 17 dotted around a nation reaching about 350 kilometers (220 miles) from top to bottom, or twice the size of New Jersey. For good measure, they have two, possibly three more covered ovals planned.
By comparison, the United States has two such ovals for a population of 315 million. A talent in Miami would have to travel 1,300 miles (2,000 kilometers) to the closest top notch facility. In practice, that means moving house to live near an oval, whereas most Dutch skaters can train and be home by dinnertime.
"Dutch facilities are immense, while in many other countries we see a decline," skating historian Marnix Koolhaas said. "Domination can only increase." At the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, the Dutch were joint top in the overall standings with eight medals; top of the overall medal stand at Turin 2006 with nine and top four years ago with seven medals.
With up to two million people ready to take the ice, Koops said, it makes for an enormous talent pool, unmatched in the world. And what's more, some 60 professional skaters and seven commercial teams prove that there is actually a good living to be made from it.
"People here can really aspire to make skating their job," said Koops. Little wonder it can be almost as tough to make the Dutch team as to get a medal at the Olympics. That competitive edge is often translated into gold.
"It takes less motivation to be the best in another country than to be the best here," Kramer's youth coach Kolder said. "Here you have to perform at all time."