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The political economy of Dutch speed skating success

Gold medalist Stefan Groothuis, center, of the Netherlands, is flanked by silver medalist Denny Morrison, left, of Canada and bronze winner Michel Mulder of the Netherlands during the medal ceremony for the men’s 1,000 meter speed skating race at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. (Larry W. Smith/ European Pressphoto Agency)

A foreigner has won a medal at men’s speed skating.” That was the headline in the Dutch satirical newspaper De Speld on Wednesday, shared widely on social media, after Canadian Denny Morrison managed to win the silver medal in the 1,000 meters during the Sochi Olympic games. De Speld reassured its readers that the other medals went to Dutchmen, something the Dutch had come to expect after their team swept the medals in the 5,000 and 500 meters events.

What explains this incredible success? Commentators point to the long history and popularity of speed skating in The Netherlands. That is obviously a part of it. Yet, at the mid-way point the Dutch have already surpassed their medal totals from any past Olympics. Another part of the story may be that the Sochi track is at low altitude, which Dutch skaters are accustomed to. Then there is sheer good fortune. Yet, there is also a remarkable story to be told about the successful privatization of the sport.

Until the mid 1990s, the center of Dutch skating was the so-called “kernploeg:” A team of six skaters who received stipends from the Dutch skating union. This was pretty much the only way a skater could make somewhat of a living from the sport. The main purpose of the “kernploeg” was to prepare Dutch participants for the annual European and World Championships in all-round skating. All-round involves a combined classification of the 500, 1500, 5,000, and 10,000 meters. It is not an Olympic event, but it is very popular in The Netherlands. There were usually four skaters that partook in the all-round skating, leaving very little room for specialists on individual distances (although some sprinters were funded).

This started to change in 1995 when European and World champion Rintje Ritsma left the kernploeg to start his own team. He was followed in 1997 by Falko Zandstra, who also formed his own team. None of this was either easy or noncontroversial. There were constant spats between the skating union and the private teams, and some of the private teams didn’t last long due to sponsorship issues. Nevertheless,  the pressure from the outside also led to changes inside the Dutch skating union, such as a renewed focus on sprinting (the shorter distances), increases in funding and so on.

The most important change, however, is that privatization allowed many more skaters to devote much more of their time to skating. Between 1995 and 1998, the number of professional (female and male) skaters in the Netherlands increased from 12 to 26. By 2006 there were 36 skaters on six different teams. This season there were 77 skaters spread out over eight professional teams. That is a much bigger pool from which to draw medal winners. What is truly remarkable about the Dutch success is that it is not due to one star. At this point (after the women’s 1,000 meters) the Dutch have won 12 medals spread out among nine different skaters.

Obviously, privatization isn’t the only route to Olympic success. Indeed, it contrasts rather sharply with the traditional and successful Soviet bloc and Chinese model of heavy state-directed investment in Olympic medals. Statistical analyses often find that communist countries win more medals even after accounting for other factors.

Privatization only works if there is indeed a market for the sport. That is the case in the Netherlands but not in other countries. Yet, there is little evidence that the market for skating has expanded rapidly over the past decade and a half (measured by things such as television viewership). It is likely that the centralized system did not allow the skaters to reap the benefits from the market that was out there. This in turn may have harmed the quality of skating.