SOCHI, Russia — There’s something about the Dutch at the Olympics that makes you want to join them. They’re like a big, inviting party moving from venue to venue unselfconsciously in their orange getups. The Dutch royal family cruised through the Sochi Games on a pack of Sunkist-colored granny bikes, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima pedaling away breezily, and then there was their speedskating champion Sven Kramer, on the most pressurized day of his life, gliding around the ice in an undershirt.
You had to marvel at Kramer’s pre-race demeanor, casual even as his countrymen blew horn blasts like shrill ducks and whacked thunder stix and bass drums at Adler Arena. If Kramer was worried about public embarrassment, there was no trace of it. Yet four years ago in Vancouver, Kramer had been publicly undressed in a painful way: After winning gold in the 5,000 meters, an NBC reporter asked the multiple world champion to identify himself for the folks at home, and he had said brassily, “What are you, stupid?”
Next, Kramer made an unthinking error in the 10,000, when he incorrectly changed lanes and was disqualified, forfeiting a gold medal. Who exactly was stupid, some in the media wondered. For four years the blunder stayed with him, and he came to Sochi vowing to win, to make up for it. “It’s still there,” he admitted. “It’s still there.”
No wonder, after setting an Olympic record in the 5,000 to lead a Dutch medal sweep Saturday on the first full day of competition in Sochi, he went pogo-legging up to the top of the medal podium. Next, he ran across the ice in his sneakers, without even slipping, to hurl a bouquet of flowers to his girlfriend. It was that kind of flushed ebullience that tempted you to ask, “Wherever you guys are going tonight, can I come along?” Everybody knows the Dutch enjoy the Olympics better than anyone — eight years ago in Turin they had an ice rink in the middle of Holland House, and everyone would drink and then slide around on it. They travel with oompah bands. Plural.
Evolving sports of the Winter Olympics
But it’s safe to say new levels of enjoyment will be reached by Kramer, who jabbered with excitement after such a powerful, self-restoring performance, running his skates over the ice like butcher knives in 6 minutes 10.76 seconds to obliterate his own Olympic mark by almost four seconds. “It was a lot of pressure the last 48 hours, getting crazy, a lot of noise, and I’m flipping out,” he said.
Maybe the Dutch are so lovable at the Winter Games because they remain great at this traditional discipline and treat it as if it still has excitement value, while so many other Olympic events tend ever more toward trickery, pushed by network heat-seekers and corporate sponsor overlords. At the same time they manage to do it with an esprit — they wear goofy assorted wigs in public and are generally uproarious over their national pastime, an exercise in monotonous lapping repetition.
But maybe another reason to want to hang with the Dutch is loyalty. The mistake four years ago wasn’t entirely Kramer’s own — it was his coach, Gerard Kemkers, who had signaled him to the wrong lane. How many Olympic athletes or teams would have fired a coach who steered a skater to the wrong lane?
“Yeah, well, we didn’t do that,” said Geert Kuiper, one of Kramer’s trainers.
Instead, Kramer and Kemkers recommitted, and Kramer stoked his competitive furnace. The result was a stretch since 2012 in which he has been utterly unbeatable, and he is now plainly the great skater of his generation. This was his 16th consecutive victory at 5,000 meters. In a sport that is sometimes decided by less than a blade-width, no one was within five seconds of him, not even his countrymen Jan Blokhuijsen and Jorrit Bergsma, who took silver and bronze. As Kramer put it, “I was the only man who could lose this race.”
He literally seemed bigger than all the other skaters. Part of Kramer’s dominance derives from the fact that physically, he’s the perfect organism for the sport, a rangy 6 feet 1, thin in the arms and long from hip to ankle, yet thick-haunched. “He is a born skater,” said Kuiper. “He was born with skates.” Well, yes, but so are most Dutch. What separates Kramer is his metronomic technique: His finishing laps were every bit as strong as his starting laps. “Everybody had trouble at the end except for Sven,” said fourth-place finisher Bart Swings of Belgium. Swings described surreptitiously trailing Kramer in training sessions, in order to study his unvarying tempo. “Whenever I can, I go behind him and try to learn with my eyes,” he said.
Kramer never showed a sign of distress or agitation, his mouth slightly open and his arm swinging like a Saturday stroller’s. Only the growing animation of the Dutch coaches with each lap suggested the meaning of the occasion to him. Kemkers was a frantic presence on the margin of the lanes, whipping Kramer on by egg-beating his arms, suggesting the competitive intensity both he and his skater have been feeling for the past four years. When it was over, and Kramer sprang to the top of the podium, he shoved his arms in the air and screamed pure exultation. The party was on.
“Revenge is not the thing we skate on,” Kuiper said afterward, pleasantly. “Of course the way to solve it is to win the thing.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.