Dutch blessed with embarrassment of riches in speed skating at Olympics

Jorrit Bergsma, the Netherlands' latest gold medalist in speed skating on Tuesday, nearly switched to representing Kazakhstan to make the last Games. Such is the depth of talent in the sport for the Dutch.

Jorrit Bergsma won the 10,000-metre speed skating gold for the Netherlands on Tuesday. Quinn Rooney / Getty Images
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Want to know how deep skating talent is in the Netherlands? Consider this: Olympic 10,000-metre champion Jorrit Bergsma thought about representing Kazakhstan at the last Olympics just to make it to Vancouver.

Qualifying for the Dutch team seemed too tough.

“We almost went to the games as Kazakhs,” he said of his training group of the time. In the end, Bergsma stuck with his native country, even though it meant missing out on the Vancouver Games.

“I am happy it finished this way,” he said after heading another Dutch sweep of the big oval at Adler Arena on Tuesday.

Bergsma’s possible nationality switch shows the lengths to which Dutch skaters are prepared to go in order to qualify for the Olympics.

With Bergsma in his orange outfit, things worked out perfectly for his country.

Beating favourite Sven Kramer and 37-year-old veteran Bob de Jong, he led a record fourth 1-2-3 finish for the Netherlands.

Their speedskating medal haul climbed to an unprecedented 19 out of a possible 27, choking out traditional powerhouses like the United States and Germany.

With the help of a lone bronze in short track skating, the Netherlands shared the overall Sochi Games medal standings lead Tuesday night with 20, level with the United States.

Put it down to a national love affair with ice.

When winter comes and it freezes hard enough to coat the country’s canals and lakes with a thick layer of ice, “there is nothing more beautiful in the world,” Bergsma said.

He’s not alone in feeling that way.

In winters when temperatures drop far enough, hundreds of thousands take to frozen waterways across the country. When there is no natural ice, Dutch skaters can go to any of 17 ovals dotted around the nation of 17 million. In comparison, the United States has just two covered ovals for 315 million people.

From an early age, the competition is fierce and it spreads right into the professional ranks where seven commercial teams provide jobs for 60 professional skaters.

Success breeds success and the Dutch have funds many other nations can only dream of. Well before Ireen Wust won a gold and two silvers in Sochi, she already had a skating oval in her name.

The one thing the Dutch don’t get is huge cash bonuses for winning gold medals. A gold medalist gets 30,000 euros (Dh150,593).

Bergsma could have been rewarded with a reportedly huge windfall – and an apartment and a car – had he won gold for Kazakhstan, but his patriotic pride trumped all that.

“I am happy I stuck to skating for the Netherlands,” he said.