BRUSSELS (AP) — There is nothing more mythical in Dutch sports than an age-old 11-city race skating across lakes and canals in bone-numbing cold from dawn to dusk. No wonder the Netherlands is the greatest speedskating nation in the world.
And with Sven Kramer and Ireen Wust leading the way on the big Olympic oval in Sochi, they are bent on proving it again.
Time and again over the last half century, the Dutch have been top or near the top of the Olympic speedskating standings — a nation of 16.8 million defying giants like the United States, Russia or Germany. In Sochi too, the Dutch have a realistic chance of a half dozen gold medals on the big oval.
They won more long-track speedskating medals than any other nation in Vancouver, and federation sporting director Arie Koops said the only way forward is to become even more dominating.
"The goal is to improve on Vancouver. And considering our current level of form, that is a realistic goal," he told The Associated Press.
What makes the difference? Check out the Netherlands in early wintertime when ice coats the trees and the first film of frozen water turns into a resistant sheet.
People get skates out of the cellar and attic, go out when they can, and all dream of if-and-when the Elfstedentocht — Eleven cities trek — marathon will be held.
"It is ingrained in our culture," said Peter Kolder, a youth coach of Kramer, who is a hot favorite to take three golds in Sochi.
Even if the race happens only once in a generation when it is cold enough, kids go out by the tens of thousands, skating on countless canals and lakes in the hope that one day they might cross the finish line.
On such a tradition-bound foundation, the Dutch have smartly built a skating powerhouse that has made the sport second only to football as a national winter pastime.
"Everyone is part of this world," Kolder said. "There is pressure to perform from young age. Look at the kids — they all want to become Sven."
Also, look at the surroundings. Much of the Netherlands is below sea-level, the country is criss-crossed with canals and lakes, making dunes and dikes often the highest natural points as far as the eye can see. It means there is no competition from any sport like Alpine skiing. Snow is so rare that Nordic events are non-existent.
So the Dutch have made the most of what they had to become a Winter Games contender. In the 1960s and early 1970s, when sports became a major television draw, they got some extra help from two great champions too.
The intense rivalry between Ard Schenk and Kees Verkerk not only yielded Olympic gold for the Netherlands, but also got the nation hooked on skating. Soon, throngs were following the stars around, to local and international competitions.