Speed skating: Dutch leave the rest flailing on the ice

SOCHI, Russia Tue Feb 11, 2014 4:44am EST

1 of 3. Winner Michel Mulder of the Netherlands (C), his twin brother third-placed Ronald Mulder (L), and their compatriot second-placed Jan Smeekens celebrate during the flower ceremony for the men's 500 metres speed skating race at the Adler Arena during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics February 10, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Issei Kato

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - The Dutch have managed to extract an endless line of soccer talent from their 17 million people but it is in the Winter Olympic sport of speed skating where they have truly struck gold.

An Olympic record 30 times, in fact.

Victories for Sven Kramer, Irene Wust and Michel Mulder on the first three days of competition at the Adler Arena in Sochi have helped the Dutch become the most decorated Olympic speed skating nation, surpassing the United States' mark of 29.

Only Norway, with 36 golds in cross-country skiing, and Austria with 32 in alpine, have won more Olympic titles in one sport.

The efforts of the speed skaters are the reason why the Dutch are ranked among the top 15 nations in an all-time medal table for the Winter Olympics, despite the paucity of snow and lack of mountains, the common denominators amongst top nations like Norway, Russia and America.

Sjoukje Dijkstra won a gold in figure skating at the 1964 Innsbruck Games and snowboarder Nicolien Sauerbreij added another at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics but the rest have come from long track.

The love of skating is believed to be born out of necessity -- when the many canals in the low country froze over the Dutch put their skates on.

"It is in every bone," Dutch fan and musician Ruud Bakker told Reuters of his country's love for the sport which has appeared in every Winter Olympics.

"Everyone, when they can walk they learn to skate."

There are now more than 20 long track ovals in Netherlands and, for the very best, teams with corporate sponsors.

While the likes of American sprinter Kelly Gunther had to sell t-shirts to help cover the costs of competing in Sochi [ID:nL3N0LB475], the Dutch skaters can earn a comfortable living and are household names.

Bakker will join the throng of vocal Dutch fans in their quirky hats and orange outfits in Sochi on Friday to play songs with his band Kleintje Pils, hopeful of roaring the Dutch on to more speed skating success. The support another likely factor.

"Its like being a rock star for four or five days," American 1,000m champion Shani Davis told reporters of his experiences of competing in Netherlands.

The powerful Kramer is the cream of the current Dutch crop.

Tall at 1.87 meters (6 feet 2 inches) and a lean 82 kilograms, the immensely powerful skater is highly favored to add to his Olympic gold medal haul with a third in the 10,000 meters next week.

After his 5,000m success, in which he led a Dutch sweep of the medals, he said only he could have prevented himself from picking up gold.

STRONG STANDARDS

Before the Games, the Americans, Canadians and Russians all postured about the latest high tech skates and suits they would be sporting in Sochi, which they suggested would give them an edge.

Wust dismissed the chatter before blitzing the 3,000m on Sunday to give the Dutch their second gold. Olga Graf took bronze for Russia - the only medal the trio of countries have won so far with the Dutch taking seven of nine available.

The Dutch are regularly credited as the tallest nation in the world, and size and wingspan certainly helps skaters.

Mulder and his twin brother Ronald, who claimed bronze in the 500m, are also above six feet but the gold medallist believed the strong standards had a greater impact.

"We just have really high competition in our country," the 27-year-old said after winning on Monday.

"If I'm not skating good at the trials I'm not even here, I can't even skate at the Olympics, that is the level of our country.

"I was really nervous when I had to qualify for this Olympic Games because it wasn't easy but it gives us every week a high competition and I think that helps, even with the nerves and the tension you get this (Olympic) kind of racing (at home).

"We dominated the first three days but since '88 we hadn't won a medal at 500 meters so it was a big one for us."

Four years ago in Vancouver, South Korea surprised by finishing as the top speed skating nation with three golds and two silvers, thanks mainly to their sprinters.

Mo Tae-bum won the 500m in Canada but on Monday he was relegated to fourth behind the three Dutch skaters - Jan Smeekens took silver - in an event the Europeans had struggled in before, mainly blamed on their love of long distances.

"The Dutch took it to a new level," said Kevin Crockett, Mo's coach.

Japan's Keiichiro Nagashima was third behind Smeekens and Michel Mulder after the first round of races but could not repeat his time in the second as he finished in sixth.

"The gap between us and Netherlands just widened," said the silver medallist at the Vancouver Games four years ago.

"Right now they are a step ahead of everyone."

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)