GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Eight time zones west, the children flocked around televisions at schools in the Netherlands, their gatherings appearing in photos on phones the broadcasters showed at an ice rink 5,300 miles away. You could picture Dutch people in cars, listening to Sebastiaan Timmerman and the former Olympic bronze medalist Erben Wennemars on the radio network NOS, or in homes or bars, watching with the narration and guidance of former speedskaters Herbert Dijkstra and Martin Hersman on NOS TV.
From afar, a country of 17 million seemed transfixed, while mindful of one of the Olympics’ most haunted backstories.
“He’s one of the biggest sportsmen we have had in the Netherlands, not only in speedskating but in sports,” Timmerman said of Sven Kramer.
“This is the biggest sports moment of this Winter Olympics for the Dutch,” Hersman said. “This day. This race.”
Then, chic as ever atop his blades, one of the best athletes ever launched into his Olympic 10,000 meters, the only race achingly missing from his decorated CV. As Kramer got going at age 31 for a race he craved with a fearless openness, he remained the reigning world champion at the distance, having posted 12:38.89 last February on this very Gangneung Oval. He had won a record third straight Olympic gold medal in the 5,000 meters Sunday. He had not won an Olympic 10,000 only because of a glitch a broadcast technician called “a national trauma,” the infamous disqualification at Vancouver 2010, one of those everybody-knows-where-they-were moments in the Netherlands.
You could sense the speedskating nuts in their royal orange in the stands — and their countrymen and women back home — in one great big shared inhale.
But then little nightmares started appearing in a spate. The man with nine all-around world titles, 19 world single-distance titles, four gold medals and eight Olympic medals began the melancholy process of running out of gas.
Skating in the hard last pairing, up against countryman Jorrit Bergsma’s 12:41.98 and Dutch-Canadian Ted-Jan Bloemen’s 12:39.77, Kramer began to lose ground on their times, then lose it in chunks. His 14th lap inched up over 31 seconds. His 19th hit an unthinkable 32.
“Six [laps], seven, eight, nine, then he kind of didn’t believe himself,” said Dijkstra, a man who skated with Kramer’s father, held Sven as an infant and has called “every step” of his career. “No, you could tell he didn’t believe it. This guy, the only thing that counts for him is number one. Number two or three, no.”
Improbable scenes kept spilling out: At Kramer’s 20th lap, Bloemen began conducting individual and group hugs, the gold medal secured. Around Kramer’s 24th and penultimate lap, the hugging had enveloped the Italian skater Nicola Tumolero, for he would win the bronze. Around Kramer’s 25th lap, something truly unthinkable happened when the other half of his pairing, Germany’s Patrick Beckert, inched up behind and almost caught him.
This search for a little Olympic justice had fizzled, and the final standings would reveal the last sick jolt: sixth place, 13:01.02, 22 seconds off his time here last year, thud in the gut.
Kramer, in Dutch in the interview mixed zone: “For years I’ve done everything for this [race]. But I wasn’t good enough.”
Hersman: “Shocking. The Dutch are flabbergasted. You could feel it on the [broadcast]. We never had as many messages during his race.”
Kramer: “There wasn’t a moment when I felt into the race.”
Dijkstra: “It’s like Dan Jansen [the American speedskating champion who kept slipping at Olympics until his final try]. People wanted him to win.”
Kramer: “I felt terrible. This [performance] is not something you work on hard for half a year.”
Timmerman: “Sven is the big star that’s entering the building and everybody is like, ‘Oh, there he is.’ ”
Kramer, in English: “It’s very tough right now.”
Hersman: “And we all think the mental pressure, and he wanted to so badly, sometimes it’s too much.”
Kramer even said, after all the buildup, that once Thursday came, he expected this result. Thud.
Anguish might have had no role, of course, had it not been for the loopy sequence of Feb. 23, 2010. Entering that day in Vancouver, Kramer had won 18 consecutive races at 10,000 meters, and he had every reason to believe he had a 19th, when he whisked past the finish line in a peerless 12:54.50. Within moments, his coach, Gerard Kemkers, had to tell him that because Kemkers had directed Kramer inaccurately toward an inner lane, there would be disqualification. Kramer refrained from pillorying Kemkers in public and kept him for four more years as coach.
Come Thursday, Timmerman held up a list he keeps for his broadcasts, filled with numerals marking Kramer’s career finishes, filled with so many 1s, just not that one 1.
“He wants to be in charge with everything, and he is,” Timmerman said, “Usually, he is. That’s why it’s so special what happened in Vancouver, in a negative way, because he’s always in charge. Sven is always in charge with everything. He knows everything about everyone around the track, about us. The first thing he does when he’s entering the rink is looking to the crowd, ‘Where is everybody? Where are my parents? Where is my girlfriend?’ He knows Erben [Timmerman’s broadcast partner], who is sitting here, very well. He is always looking at us for one moment and blinking his eye, and he is always in charge. And that makes it even more strange, what happened in Vancouver. That was one of the few moments that he wasn’t in charge.”
Even by Sunday, after the 5,000, Kramer said of the 10,000, “I think it’s not a secret that it’s really important to me.”
Everything built toward Thursday night. Six pairs of skaters readied. In the early portion, the beneficiary of Kemkers’s error, South Korean 2010 gold medalist Lee Seung-hoon, skated to the kind of rousing home-country applause that marks an Olympics and makes the neck hairs stand. He skated also to 12:55.54, which would snare him fourth place, ahead of Kramer again, somehow.
After the Zambonis redid the ice, Bergsma graced the fourth pairing with his 12:41.98, briefly an Olympic record and a reminder he did defeat Kramer in the 10,000 meters at Sochi. (Kramer won silver.) The fifth pairing brought Bloemen and his 12:39.77, another justification of his move from the Netherlands, where he toiled on the fringes of the country’s mighty program, to Canada, where he became a bigger fish.
Finally, up came Kramer.
“People feel related to it,” Hersma had said earlier. “They know it. They’ve seen it all. He came as a kid. His father was a pretty good skater, not as good as his son. We have this news program, and Sven was there as a kid. ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ ‘I want to be the world champion.’ ”
By the 10th lap, the untrained eye could fancy him still hopeful as he stood at 5:07.81 to Bloemen’s 5:06.56 and ahead of Bergsma. But as his times in laps 14 through 18 trickled over 31 seconds and as laps 19 through 24 startlingly over 32 and as he began to look about as spent as a Sven Kramer could look, a hard adage resurfaced: Sometimes the Olympics bring justice to the titans, and sometimes they just don’t.
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