RICHMOND, British Columbia --
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
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 --
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,
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
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
Until now, Holland's poster boy for speedskating misfortune had been
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
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
Such is life on the edge. And such is life on two edges.