Of all the sounds one could hear at an Olympics, here came one of the most inveterate, the most dynastic and the most telltale in these 2010s. Call it a Dutch salvo. It’s that burst of noise that rang through Gangneung Oval on Sunday, just as it has through speedskating venues all through this Netherlands era.
It’s the connoisseur’s noise from people who know how to behold and cheer their speedskating fractions, just as they saw a pretty one here. At the 3,400-meter mark of the 5,000-meter men’s race, Sven Kramer, the big, bad boss of the game, had attained 4 minutes 12.52 seconds, barging past the front-running 4:12.71 of the temporary leader, the Dutch-raised Canadian Ted-Jon Bloemen.
Everyone from the country that won a staggering 23 speedskating medals at Sochi 2014 knew what that meant, and everyone knew it meant much. With three more fractions to cheer and a final time to cheer protractedly, Kramer would become the first men’s Olympic speedskater to win an individual event three straight times. This longtime front-runner would become a gold medalist for the fourth time and a medalist for the eighth. His time, 6:09.76, would forge an Olympic record, just as his time of 6:10.76 at Sochi 2014 had forged an Olympic record, and just as his time of 6:14.60 at Vancouver 2010 had forged an Olympic record.
“It’s nice to make history,” he said, emblematic of his life, “but now I’m going to try to recover as soon as possible for this and look forward to the next competitions.”
When reporters got shy with the questions after four minutes, he leapt up and hurried out of the room.
He does know how to hurry.
Even with Kramer in that hard position as long-established T-Rex, and even with the 10,000 meters coming Thursday looking more evocative, the 5,000 did have its pre-race suspense. Two months ago, Bloemen, also 31, had hatched a world record of 6:01.86 in the high air of Salt Lake City, a jewel to pair with his 10,000-meter world record of 12:36.30, from 2015 and also in Salt Lake City. With his Dutch-Canadian father and his move from the fringes of the Netherlands program to the fore of the Canadian one in 2014, he arrived here as both an Olympic debutant and a threat.
Then: “To be honest,” Kramer said, “I was a bit lucky with the draw.”
The draw placed Bloemen and the Norwegian Sverre Lunde Pedersen in the ninth pairing, ahead of Kramer and the German Peter Becker in the 10th. The ninth turned out to be a donnybrook requiring post-race, state-of-the-art photography. As Bloemen caught up madly with Pedersen and the two men charged to the finish, to the top of the leader board and to untold amounts of burned muscles, with Bloemen saying he “barely could stand on my legs” around the last corner, their front tips of their skates arrived too simultaneously for a mere eye to decipher.
When futuristic photos showed Bloemen to have finished in 6:11.616, and Pedersen in 6:11.618, Bloemen had the overall lead with two pairings to go, but Kramer had the opening.
“Yes,” Bloemen said, “because I knew it wasn’t a great, great race, so I expected him to beat it.” He had said, “The perfect race . . . it doesn’t always happen, and it didn’t happen today.” He had misplaced his rhythm and flow in the middle part of the slog, and he would take a silver, with Pedersen’s bronze a breakthrough for the Olympic titan Norway in one of its less-bountiful sports.
“Those skaters were in front of me,” Kramer said, “and they were starting pretty fast and they were blowing up their legs a bit on the end, so I changed strategy a bit on the beginning, and I was starting with 29 [seconds]. And the strategy beginning today was probably [planned to be] a bit faster than I have given today, but overall, I think it was a good strategy for me. When they finished, I thought, ‘It’s going to be tough, but still it’s the time to skate.’ It’s not that difficult but, to be honest, you always have to work really hard for it.”
In the impossible precision of the game, his last 11 fractions in the 400-meter laps went like this: 29.50, 29.12, 29.34, 29.34, 29.00, 29.32, 29.10, 29.07, 29.18, 29.52, 29.47. It was that 29.10 tucked in the middle that pushed Kramer past Bloemen and told the Dutch fans in their hopeful orange that Kramer was just as ruthless at 31 as he had been at 27 and at 23.
As his lead grew from there with each lap, reaching its 1.85 seconds by the end, it looked clear that those in the joint were watching a rare Olympian among rare Olympians, and that soon, Kramer would finish, round the turn with his index finger in the air, and later hop up to the podium, pump his arms and bounce around.
It also looked clear that this coming Thursday brims with promise.
That’s when Kramer will chase a race in which he already has one silver medal (2014) and one of the most excruciating disqualifications in Olympic history (2010). In that 10,000 meters of Vancouver eight years ago, Kramer actually proved considerably the best skater, with the best time, but lost out when his coach directed him into the lane change that would wreak agony and burn in memory banks.
“I think it’s not a secret that it’s really important to me,” Kramer said, “but, you know, I think I won a lot in the Olympics, but I lost a lot as well. But for sure, it’s going to be a tough competition. . . . Yeah, for sure it’s important to me, but today was the 5K, the most important, and I really focused myself those last two-and-a-half laps.”
As the Dutch fans with their salvos agreed, there’s little like seeing Sven, focused on a last two-and-a-half laps.
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