By Alexander Wolff
February 26, 2010

RICHMOND, British Columbia -- SvenKramer of the Netherlands gets back up on his skates today. He'll join two countrymen in team pursuit qualifying, with an eye on Saturday's men's final, in which Holland is heavily favored.

Kramer, Holland, heavily favored -- they're three things that have gone naturally together since the Turin Olympics. They've also caused shudders back home since last Tuesday's 10,000 meters. That's when the Dutch speedskater, on his way to an Olympic record and his second gold medal of the Games, followed the instructions of his confused coach, GerardKemkers, and improperly switched lanes 17 laps into the race. Upon learning from a distraught Kemkers that he had been disqualified, Kramer whipped his goggles angrily to the ice, pushed his coach away and kicked a lane marker.

By the next morning, calm again, Kramer reported that he and his coach had cleared the air. "The past few years were simply too good to drop someone just like that," said Kramer, who hadn't lost at the distance since hooking up with Kemkers four years ago. "We've won so much together. You can write what you want, say what you want, or make jokes about us, but we're OK now."

In the team pursuit Kramer and two others -- Jan Blokhuijsen and either Simon Kuipers or 1,500-meters gold medalist Mark Tuitert -- will draft for one another over eight laps of the 400-meter Richmond Olympic Oval. But where ice is involved, something could always go wrong, as it did for Kramer in the team event in Turin, when he clipped a lane marker, fell and had to content himself with a bronze. "In Holland, there's fear that Sven will start so fast that the others will wind up swimming," one Dutch journalist muttered yesterday, using the verb for a pokey-paced skate.

The Vancouver suburb of Richmond has supplied plenty to make the Dutch feel at home for these Olympics: mild temperatures; a series of dikes that keep out the sea; and the Oval, a temple to the Netherlands' most culturally important pastime. But over the years, speedskating has inflicted recurring traumas on that country, and the sport today is entwined with Holland's abiding existential one -- the climate change that threatens to cause the North Sea to overtop those dikes back home.

Global warming is also depriving the Netherlands of one of the few uncommercialized festivals of sport left in the world, an event that helps explain why Richmond has been overrun for the past two weeks by thousands of Heineken-quaffing, orange-rocking, bike-riding, "If-it-ain't-Dutch-it-ain't-much"-boasting lowlanders. The Elf Steden Tocht, or Eleven-Cities Tour, is a race staged on 72 hours notice, after the canals freeze to a requisite depth. Its winner is usually some strapping farmer who has trained in solitude for years, yet everyone who completes the 200 kilometers receives a cross-shaped medallion. Alas, the last time the race could be run was in 1997, when a three-week cold spell caused the country to be seized with a kind of mania.

Three of every four Dutch watched the telecast of the Elf Steden Tocht that year, and a survey later determined that even more -- some 13.6 million people -- had been inspired to go skating in some fashion. The country's crown prince, WillemAlexander, remade his public image that day by completing the race. "Before that, people called him Prince Pils, or 'The Beer Prince,'" says MartSmeets of NOS Dutch TV, the network's Bob Costas in Vancouver. "That day, he became a man. I've anchored three Elf Steden Tochts, but I'd gladly trade them for one participation so I, too, can become a man."

At the Olympics, the closest thing to the Elf Steden Tocht is the men's 10,000 meters. "To me, the best skater is the one who wins the 10,000," says U.S. legend EricHeiden, the only Olympian to win gold at all five individual distances. "The endurance, the technique, the power-it's all there. I really identify with a skater like Sven Kramer, because he's got it all."

For four years, Kramer had made that magisterial race his own, and until this week there seemed to be no surer thing than his winning the distance. Though Kramer skated at midnight back home, nearly 7 million Dutch watched on TV. To get a sense of how the disaster played, imagine the star-crossed American speedskater DanJansen going through one of his quadrennial agonies, but while representing a country where farmers began skating their goods to market centuries ago; where there's an ice rink within a 40-minute drive of virtually every citizen; and where 81 of 84 Winter Olympic medals have come from this one endeavor. Not since its JohannCruyff-led soccer team laid waste to the World Cup field in 1974, only to lose the final to Germany, has the Netherlands been so traumatized by one sporting failure. And all because, as Tuitert told me last week, "we have a special relationship with water, whether it's fluid or frozen."

Until now, Holland's poster boy for speedskating misfortune had been Hilbert van der Duim, the first Dutch skater ever to beat Heiden. Leading in the 10,000 at the 1981 Europeans, which were being contested outdoors, van der Duim fell and blamed it on a patch of bird poop. Later that year, in the 5,000 at the Worlds, he mistakenly sprinted to the finish one lap early. "We call a pure blunder 'a Hilbert,' " says JohnVolkers, the speedskating correspondent for the Dutch daily De Volksramt. "It will now be replaced by 'a Kramer' or 'a Kemkers.' "

In 1963, the Elf Steden Tocht took place in zero-degree temperatures, with drifting snow and a howling east wind. The winner needed almost 11 hours to complete the course. Of only 69 skaters to finish, one was a man named HenkGemser, who a quarter-century later found himself at the Calgary Olympics coaching a young distance specialist named Gerard Kemkers. In the 5,000 meters, Kemkers was on his way to winning a gold medal when he tangled his skates and fell. Gemser screamed at him to get up, and Kemkers finished to collect the bronze.

As a racer, Kemkers was never the same. But he remade himself as a coach, while Gemser is serving as head of the Netherlands' delegation for these Games. In the midst of the Kramer-Kemkers melodrama Tuesday, there was Gemser, kneeling before Kramer in the infield, counseling him in their native Frisian. Then he shuttled to Kemkers to offer consolation and encouragement, reprising the role he had played at another Canadian Olympics some 22 years earlier.

It's their appreciation of that rich history that led Dutch fans, over the Olympic fortnight, to salute 1,000-meter gold medalist ShaniDavis of the U.S. They cheered LeeSeung-Hoon when he put up the time that would deliver to South Korea the 10,000-meter gold that had seemed like such a lock for the Netherlands. They lent their voices to the Kleintje Pils band as it oom-pah-pahed out O Canada after ChristineNesbitt's gold-medal skate in the women's 1,000. Recognizing that their sport is in as much peril as their country, the Dutch are pulling desperately for both.

Such is life on the edge. And such is life on two edges.

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