The Netherlands' Sven Kramer became just the second speed skater to claim consecutive golds in the 5000m.
David E. Klutho/SI
By Michael Farber
February 08, 2014

SOCHI -- This was like clockwork, orange.

The times: 29.04, 29.13, 29.15, 29.56 … and on and on it went for 12 laps, metronomic in its precision over 5000 meters, a race that drains the legs and the lungs and the brains.

Sven Kramer never wavered, never tied up and never cheated on his technique. You could carve off the laps of his Olympic record 6:10.76, hand them out in slices for dessert at Thanksgiving, and no one would grouse that someone else had a bigger piece.

The quickest lap was the first, 29.04, and the slowest was the last, 29.84, a variation of eight tenths of a second that was invisible to the naked eye of everyone in Adler Arena, including King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, who hopped on their orange bicycles and rode to the arena to see one of the greatest long-track speed skaters in history skate what might have been one of his greatest races.

Kramer, a tall but not broad man with an aquiline nose and more than a passing facial resemblance to Sidney Crosby, is 27.  He is in the prime of his career, the gold standard of his sport, probably the best since Eric Heiden skated outside a high school in Lake Placid in 1980 and won an unprecedented five gold medals. Kramer, like Heiden, does not overpower skaters as much as he awes them.

Bart Swings of Belgium finished fourth or, as it should be known on the oval, gold medalist, non-Dutch Division. (Kramer headed a Netherlands sweep of the podium.) During training sessions, Swings says, “I try to go behind him and learn with my eyes.”

“He was born to skate,” Geert Kuiper, a Dutch coach who works with Kramer’s TMV team, said of Kramer. “He was born with skates on. Other skaters use technique as their tool. He has technique, but the others don’t have the mentality that he has. He is also a fighter.”

So, I asked, how long did it take him to get over Vancouver 2010?

“Maybe four years.”

This is the back-story of Kramer, who Saturday became the second man to win the 5000 meters in consecutive Games. The win was his 16th straight over the distance. He has been unbeaten since 2012. But a passel of victories does not mark the skater -- he now has three Olympic titles and six world all-around championships -- as much as a single absurd, risible defeat.

You might not remember it. Four years ago, unless you lived in West Allis, Wis., Park City, Utah, or another American speed skating mecca, you might not have known Sven Kramer from Cosmo Kramer. (His name is pronounced Krahm-mer. The “a” is short, like most Americans’ attention span for speed skating on television when it is not under the aegis of the IOC.)

But in his low-lying country, beribboned with canals, speed skating is not merely a sporting phenomenon but a social one. Ard Schenk, a Dutch triple gold-medalist from the 1972 Sapporo Olympics, has a flower named after him -- a type of crocus chyrsanthus, the early blooming snow crocus. (This tribute, on balance, is even more impressive than the Coach K Court at Duke.)

When the weather cooperates and canals freeze solid, as they last did in 1997, the Netherlands has a 125-mile, 11-city race in the north, the mythic Elfstedentocht, which has attracted 16,000 competitors and two million spectators in a land of 16 million.

Entering Sochi, Holland had won a record 82 Olympic speed skating medals, two more than Norway, an early power in the sport, and 15 more than the U.S. Of the 491 speed skating medals awarded prior to Saturday, this tiny country had won one of every six. The Netherlands has only four non-speed skating medals in the Winter Games.

Explanation? Kuiper: “We don’t have mountains.”

No, but the Netherlands has competition. Kuiper said the top 26 skaters in Holland would constitute a far stronger field than the 26 that took the starting line in the 5,000 in Sochi.

So when the biggest name in speed skating in the biggest speed skating country in the world makes a mistake to blow a cinch gold medal … well, this is not Lindsey Jacobellis hot-dogging her way out of a U.S. win in snowboard cross in 2006 or Swedish goalie Tommy Salo fur-balling a Belarusian game-winning shot from beyond the blue line in a 2002 quarterfinal or any other recent Winter Olympic gaffe you care to resurrect.

This is not even comparable to Red Sox Nation in high dudgeon over Bill Buckner because the Netherlands is, you know, an actual nation.

Anyway, the story: Kramer, who already had won the 5000, was cruising to a second gold in the 10000, the obvious prelude to a third gold for the heavily-favored Dutch in the team pursuit. Kramer had a widening six-second lead and eight laps to go when he was required to change lanes.

Kramer properly took the turn on the inside lane and was supposed to shift to the outside for the next lap. He already had made the adjustment when his coach, Gerard Kemkers, motioned him with one finger to go back, shouting “inside lane!” Two-thirds of the way to a smashing victory, Kramer seemed to hesitate for an instant and then dutifully returned to the inside.

Kemkers was almost instantly crestfallen, but Kramer had no idea he had been disqualified until after he had crossed the finish line.

The headline in De Telegraaf, the largest morning daily in the Netherlands, roared: “How is this possible!” -- although with a lot more hard consonants. The Dutch never quite recovered, later finishing third in the team pursuit.

On reflection, maybe a better analogy is not the grounder to Buckner but Grady Little sticking too long with Pedro Martinez.

Two questions linger.

First, since when do men ever listen to directions?

Second, why did Kramer not dress his coach in a cement overcoat, take him to the nearest canal and see if he could float?

While Kramer did apportion the blame that day -- he was not going down alone -- he accepted Kemkers’ mistake with grace. Tossing away a gold medal because a faulty lane switch -- and ultimately a second one in the team pursuit -- in a finite career is nothing that would deepen the athlete-coach bond.

But on the morning after the race in Vancouver, Kramer told reporters: “Such things can happen to the best of us, but also to the biggest amateurs. Our talk was not easy, but we both came out of it all right … It happened. It is done with. It is terrible.”

Maybe it really was not that forthright or that mature.

“It’s still there. It’s still there,” Kramer said of the disappointment at the post-race press conference. “… It was actually a pretty hard time.”

Despite his dominance in the 5000, or maybe because of it, he felt the pressure in Sochi. He felt the pressure from expectations -- the Dutch media, the Dutch fans (only about 150 in Adler, although thoughtfully most of the seats in the venue are orange) and, of course, his own. He heard the noise in the athletes’ village and the noise in his brain. Maybe things won’t be quiet until after the 10K on Feb. 18.

“Revenge,” says Kuiper, who works with Kemkers, “is not the thing we are skating on. The only way to solve it is to win the 10K.”

CAZENEUVE: Kramer missed his chance for 10K gold; complete Sochi Olympics medal picks

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