For various reasons that have to do with winter scenes by Brueghel and the myth of Hans Brinker, the Dutch are as closely linked with the sport of skating as Cooperstown, N.Y. is with the birth of baseball. It is a surprising fact, therefore, that in the 44-year history of the Winter Olympic Games the Dutch have never won a speed-skating gold medal.
Next week, however, the famine is going to end with a feast. Dutch skaters, male and female, should win at least three gold medals in speed skating at Grenoble, and they have a chance to capture six of the eight.
The breakthrough for The Netherlands has come because the Dutch have started to rely on skating ovals made by machine instead of canals frozen by God. The Netherlands Skating Association has built three of these artificial tracks at a cost of $2.2 million. The Dutch, who feel they belong on skates, can at last really indulge their most natural sport without having to depend on cold winters to produce ice. The ersatz ice already has helped turn out three of the world's best. They are:
•Stien Kaiser, 29, a police-station secretary from Delft who in 1967 was the best in the world at 1,000, 1,500 and 3,000 meters and became the first Dutch lass ever to win the world championship, a title held by the Russians for 15 years. Miss Kaiser has been skating since she was 7 when she discovered that it was a quick way of getting to school over the frozen ditches around Delft. Stien has a chance in the Olympic 500-meter, though the favorite will be Diane Holum of the U.S. She should win a medal at 1,000 meters, but will have to beat teammate Carry Geijssen and Russia's Ludmila Titova for a gold. At 3,000 meters she should be just behind teammate Ans Schut and at 1,500 just ahead of Carry, Ans and Russia's Lidia Skoblikova.
•Ard Schenk, 23, a physical-therapy student, raised on his family's 42-acre mink, potato, corn and beet-sugar farm. He won the European championship in 1966 and was runner-up at the world championships in both 1966 and 1967. Schenk has an excellent chance to win a gold medal at 1,500 meters.
•Kees Verkerk (left), 25, short, dark, muscular, and furiously competitive, who in 1967 became the first skater in nine years to win both the world and European championships in the same season. Stocky and explosive, Verkerk is nonetheless a distance racer. He will be co-favored with Schenk and Russia's Eduard Matusevich at 1,500 meters, the co-favorite with Norway's Fred Anton Maier in both the 5,000 and 10,000. Kees is from Puttershoek, where his father owns a bar. He looks for his strongest Olympic challengers to come from Norway, Sweden and Russia, but mostly he looks toward his close friend, Ard Schenk. "Ard keeps me up to the mark," he says. "And I guess I keep him up to it, too."
From the time he was 7 years old Kees Verkerk has been kept up to the mark by a proud and dictatorial father, Pleun Verkerk, who was in his youth a sprinter, a speed skater and a soccer player. In his middle age, Verkerk senior has become the classic version of the frustrated athlete who sells the souls of his children for the world fame he never earned himself.
The Verkerk home, constructed of yellow brick browned by age, perches by the edge of the River Maas, next to the town pier. It is half tavern, half grim, bare living quarters over the tavern. Pleun is a crude, powerful, gray-haired man who greets visitors with a gruff voice and a violent thump on the back.
"How you like where we live?" he bellows. "We are a hard, strong, simple family, and it is from a tiny house like this that comes world champion. From big house comes only son of a bitch."
Verkerk senior is bullishly proud of the fact that Kees, or Keesie as he is called, has dedicated himself to a life in sports. Pleun was a far-roving bus driver when Kees was a boy. But when Kees won his first speed-skating gold medal, the junior championship of Holland, at 14, Pleun Verkerk retired from bus driving and bought the house-tavern so that he could stay at home to supervise his son's training. After showing visitors the trophy case, which houses the silver medal Kees brought home from the 1964 Olympics, Pleun says, "Come, now you see how a champion lives." The first stop is a chilly room that contains barrels of beer and a bicycle braced in a frame. "When he is home," says the father, "Keesie pedals on this for two hours every day. The sweat pours off him like beer from one of my faucets. You try." Thanks, but no.
Next stop is the Verkerk living quarters, as clean as a freshly frozen pond and just about as barren and chilly.
In the bathroom, Pleun points to a worn steel and enamel bathtub. "The greatest speed skaters in the world come to this little house, they come and bathe in that bathtub," Pleun announces. "Everyone comes to the house of a world champion."
It is very likely that next week customers and admirers will continue to pound at the door of the Café Verkerk, after Kees once again revives the images of Brueghel and of Hans Brinker.