This Insane 120-Mile Speedskating Race Makes the Winter Olympics Look Easy

Five-Ring Circus
A Blog About the Olympic Games
Feb. 23 2014 2:24 PM

This Insane 120-Mile Speedskating Race Makes the Winter Olympics Look Easy

138479715-dutch-volunteer-measures-on-february-7-2012-the
On Feb. 7, 2012, a Dutch volunteer measures the thickness of the ice on a canal in northern Netherlands to see whether the annual Elfstedentocht can start.

Photo by Lex Van Lieshout/AFP/Getty Images

As the 2014 Winter Olympics draw to a close, one thing, at least, is clear: The Dutch are the greatest speedskaters in the world. The Netherlands won 23 speedskating medals in Sochi; the second-most-successful nation, Poland, only won three. Why are the Dutch so good at speedskating? For one thing, the sport is a bonafide national obsession. (Seriously: I hope someday to care about anything as much as the Dutch apparently care about speedskating.) And if you want to understand the depths of that obsession, it helps to understand the Elfstedentocht.

The Elfstedentocht—Dutch for “Eleven Cities Tour”—is a 200-kilometer outdoor speedskating race over the frozen canals of Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands. It has been described as “the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup and World Series rolled into one”—and it might just be my favorite athletic event of all time. The race was first held in 1909, and has since become a national tradition, an epic test of Dutch citizens’ endurance, athleticism, and sanity. On the website Cafe Babel, a fan posted an ominous ode to the race: “Think, endless stretches of ice in a barren landscape/ Think, the wind cutting on your face and sweeping snow in your eyes/ Think, frozen toes, fingers, noses and ears/ Think, the hardest race in the world.” Sign me up!

Advertisement

There’s no set schedule for the Elfstedentocht; it only happens when the ice is sufficiently thick—at least 15 centimeters in depth throughout. But the impromptu nature of the race is a big part of what makes it so exciting. Once the organizers decide that the conditions are right for an Elfstedentocht, plans are made, and the race is held within 48 hours of the official announcement. The race kicks off at 5:30 in the morning, and must be completed before midnight that same day. The skaters pass through 11 cities, collecting a stamp in each one, cheered by millions of spectators. Though professional speedskaters are the ones competing for the fastest times, thousands of ordinary Dutch citizens skate the route, too, just for fun. In 1986, Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander skated the Elfstedentocht, under the pseudonym “W.A. Van Buren.”

The most memorable Elfstedentocht happened in 1963, when temperatures were so low and conditions so snowy and windy that fewer than 200 out of approximately 10,000 participants actually finished the race. Countless skaters suffered frostbite and other weather-related injuries. The race became known as “The Hell of ’63,” and this video gives you a sense of why the name was apt:

There hasn’t been an Elfstedentocht since 1997, when the race was won by Henk Angenent, a speedskater and Brussels sprout farmer, who finished in 6 hours and 49 minutes. But every winter, the Dutch hope that the race might happen. In 2012 temperatures dipped low enough that an Elfstedentocht seemed possible, and the Netherlands went crazy. Skating fans booked every hotel room in Friesland. Speedskaters declared that they would skip the upcoming world championships to skate the Elfstedentocht. “Busy sharpening skates, rummaging through layers of clothes, training soon for the elfstedentocht. I’VE GOT THE FEVER,” Vancouver speedskating gold medalist Mark Tuitert posted on Twitter. Unfortunately, the organizing committee decided that the ice was insufficiently thick, and the race was canceled. According to the BBC, an Elfstedentocht official “urged skaters not to despair and instead get out on the ice and skate their disappointment away.”

And I think that explains why the Dutch are so good at speedskating. All year, they look forward to this horribly grueling outdoor skating contest, and when it doesn’t happen, they console themselves with more skating. Now that’s devotion! With global temperatures trending upward, some wonder whether conditions will ever again be right for the Elfstedentocht. Let’s hope so. Until then, the Dutch will have to console themselves with continued international dominance of a sport that nobody comes close to caring about as much as they do.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 2:05 PM Paul Farmer Says Up to Ninety Percent of Those Infected Should Survive Ebola. Is He Right?
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 22 2014 2:27 PM Facebook Made $595 Million in the U.K. Last Year. It Paid $0 in Taxes
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 22 2014 1:01 PM The Surprisingly Xenophobic Origins of Wonder Bread
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 10:00 AM On the Internet, Men Are Called Names. Women Are Stalked and Sexually Harassed.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 10:39 PM Avengers: Age of Ultron Looks Like a Fun, Sprawling, and Extremely Satisfying Sequel
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 2:59 PM Netizen Report: Twitter Users Under Fire in Mexico, Venezuela, Turkey
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.