Sochi Letter: You have won nothing in speed skating until the Dutch have had their go

The leading Russian, Denis Yuskov, waved as if to say, ‘well, I gave it a shot’

Sven Kramer of the Netherlands skates to gold during the men’s 5,000m speed skating race at the Adler Arena during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

Sven Kramer of the Netherlands skates to gold during the men’s 5,000m speed skating race at the Adler Arena during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

 

The Dutch oompah band played Sex Bomb and Hands Up Baby, Hands Up. Four cheerleaders, pom-poms a-shimmer, gyrated out front for all they were worth. When they were done, the DJ led the crowd at the Adler Arena in a “c’mon- everybody” rendition of YMCA.

Throw in the appearance of Tatu and the playing of Queen in the opening ceremony – not to mention a fully-uniformed Russian interior ministry band playing Get Lucky and one thing is clear. If these are the anti-gay propaganda Olympics, nobody told the people in charge of the music.

(Day by day, it becomes more obvious how this all ends. Closing ceremony, lights go down, spotlight picks out Putin on his balcony. Coy old Vlad pretends to be shocked but then he stands, rips off of his old duffel coat and bangs out a stirring rendition of I Am What I Am. Do it Vlad – the world is ready for your jelly.)

Anyway, this veritable smorgasbord of camp was playing out while the ice was being prepared for the final four pairs of speed skaters in the men’s 5,000m. The Russians were in first and second position at this point but nobody in the Adler expected them to stay there. When the leader Denis Yuskov did a lap of the infield waving to the crowd, it was as much to say, “Well, I gave it a shot”.

You’ve won nothing in speed skating until the Dutch have had their go. And even then, it’s usually going to take them doing something wrong for you to come away with anything. They’ve won more Olympic medals in the sport than any other country.

Speed skating runs thick in the Dutch blood. In the 54 years that the Dutch Sportsman of the Year award has been on the go, speed skaters have won it 16 times. Only cyclists come close with 14. For all the rich and storied lore of Dutch football, nobody outside Ruud Gullit and Johan Cruyff has managed to squeeze in past them. Against that weight of history, it was no wonder Yuskov looked resigned to his fate.

Ginning up
The Mac Daddy here was a 27-year-old from Heerenveen called Sven Kramer. That’s “KRAM-er” as in somebody desperately ginning up on knowledge ahead of an event where they’ll be asked to regurgitate it, rather than Kramer the Seinfeld character. Unbeaten in his last 15 5,000m races, he was defending the gold he won in Vancouver.

Speed skating is old-money winter Olympics. It’s been at every games since the start, its band of arm-swinging, back- bending, heel-flicking skaters loop-de-looping the rink since 1924. Watching on, it’s hard to think of another sport where so little obvious effort is given in the burning up of so much energy.

Straight line speed comes from catapulting off the bends and then gliding down the straights with as little movement as possible. Thus you have the sight of prime athletes scrabbling around corners like Jerry making a getaway from Tom and then immediately planting their hands behind their back like they’re Dinny Byrne peering over a gate. The gear changes are a killer – techno round the bends, Stravinsky on the straights.

You didn’t particularly need the clock to see that Kramer was by a distance the best of the field. As every other skater came to the finish line, their form got ragged, their shoulders dropped and their heads bowed. The arms that are only supposed to be swung rounding the corners were windmilling now as the line approached. Technique was out the window.

Kramer though finished his 12th lap the same way he finished his first – like it hadn’t taken a lick out of him. Where the other skaters either went off too fast or too slow, his lap times had stencilled consistency. He said afterwards that he had been aiming for 29.2-second laps. His fastest was 29.02, his slowest 29.84. It all washed out into an Olympic record and a gold medal by a full five seconds. His Dutch teammates filled out second and third.

“It was a lot of pressure the last 48 hours,” said Kramer. “I’m flipping out. I knew I had to do it in this race. Overall, I just focused on myself. I was the only man who could lose this race. But I didn’t expect it to come so easily. I think that was one of my best races ever.”

The pressure came not just from being the favourite but also having some making up to do. Though it was his fifth Olympic medal, he’s had a pretty pockmarked history at the games. In Turin, he cost his country a shot at team pursuit gold by clipping a lane marker in the semi-final and bringing a teammate down with him.

Worse came in Vancouver, where he caused an international incident when he replied to an American TV reporter who asked him to say his name for the camera with, “Are you stupid?” A few days later, with the 10,000m at his mercy, he got disqualified for skating in the wrong lane. Cue a welter of “Who’s Stupid Now?” headlines.

Sochi, then, is as much a recovery mission as anything else. “It’s still there, it’s still there,” he admitted on Saturday. “Ask me in two more weeks, we’ll see then. It was a pretty hard time back then.”

On this evidence, it’s well behind him. The oompah band won’t be the only Dutch fixture in the Adler for the rest of the games.