02/17/2014 11:27 pm ET Updated Apr 19, 2014

The 'Lowlanders' Flying High in Sochi

When my family moved to the cold-in-the-winter Netherlands from a hot-all-the-time, Caribbean Curacao, I was 14 and too old to ever become half as good an ice skater as the average six-year-old Dutch kid.

But in a country with an intricate network of almost 1,000 canals and thousands of ponds and lakes -- almost 25 percent of the Netherlands is covered by water -- that freeze over almost every winter, it is understandable why ice skating is such a popular national pastime.

It is a common sight to see, on a winter Sunday afternoon, three or more generations of the same family skating hand-in-hand on one of the "grachten" or "kanalen " (canals) -- from three-year-old Janneman to sixty-year-old Oma and Opa.

One can skate from town to town along frozen canals to visit family and friends or simply for an afternoon outing.

There is even an "eleven city" ice skating race or marathon in the northern province of Friesland (the "elfsteden tocht") the Dutch look forward to every year. But it is also an event that has frequently been cancelled in recent years due to mild winters -- the temperature has to drop long and low enough to freeze the ice along the 200 kilometer (125 miles) canal route to an acceptable and safe depth of 15 cm ( about 6 in.).

As the official elfstedentocht website explains, "From city to city, across lakes, ditches. Between the meadows and under the bridges. Hundreds of thousands of spectators braved the cold and encourage along the route to the skaters. Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland, is traditionally the start and finish..."

It has now been 16 years since the last elfstedentocht took place and it has been held only 15 times since its official inception in 1909. The last race was held in 1997.

Long distance skating is so popular with the Dutch that, in view of the recent absence of the eleven cities race an Alternatieve Elfstedentocht (alternative eleven cities race) has been organized since 1989 at the Weissensee, a lake in Austria. It is an event to which more than 6,000 Dutch skaters and skate enthusiasts flock.

Ironically, because of too much snow this year, even the alternative race had to be cancelled -- the first time in many years -- leaving approximately 2,000 Dutch skaters snowed-in at Weissensee resorts.

Ice skating is so popular in the Netherlands, such an integral part of the culture -- The King of the Netherlands proposed to the Queen on ice skates -- that it should not be surprising that the Dutch are very successful -- "dominant" may be a better word -- in speed skating events, especially at the Winter Olympics.

A quick look at the Sochi Winter Olympics speed skating medals count leaves no doubt.

The Netherlands has swept the Sochi podiums in all speed skating events taking -- as of this writing -- a total of 17 medals: Five gold, five silver and seven bronze. For a small country of not quite 17 million, an astounding feat.

The New York Times: "No team been so dominant in the sport since East Germany in the 1980s," leaving the Americans "baffled."

But Olympic skating has not always been a Dutch forte.

Bobby Ilich, at the International Business Times discusses why "speed skating continues to be dominated by the Dutch" and says that Irene Postma, a Holland native and a former publisher and editor of Speed Skating World magazine, attributes the Dutch love affair with competitive speed skating to a pair of male skaters in the 1960s "who were quickly embraced by the country." They were Ard Schenk and Kees Verkerk who became "the first televised image of skating, and their sportsmanship toward each other and toward their fans, as well as toward the sport, inspired the Dutch to make their habit of skating long distances become competitive."


Verkerk and Schenk experienced Olympic glory in L'Anneau de Vitesse, which hosted the speed skating events of the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, with Verkerk winning gold in the 1,500 meters and Schenk taking the silver. Verkerk would also take the silver in the 5,000.

By the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, Holland was an elite power, with Schenk taking home three gold medals, and Verkerk winning a silver.

And, Ilich continues, "Verkerk and Schenk helped get the Dutch believing they could win medals, and the county's hasn't looked back since."

True, the Netherlands is not looking back. What is even more fascinating is that this small, low ("Nederland" literally means low land or low country), flat nation with a an average elevation of about 66 feet and the highest point a whopping 1,056 feet, also loves skiing and other downhill events.

Eric Weiberger, Dutch himself, explains how "the Dutch flatlanders have an outsize love for the slopes" so much that "In 2012, while the country was still struggling through recession, nearly one million (out of a population of almost 17 million) traveled to the Alps. They descend en masse on Alpine resorts, most of them Austrian..."

And, Weiberger points out that, in Sochi, "for the first time , a Dutch person -- Nicolien Sauerbreij, from the town of De Hoef, a few feet below sea level -- will be defending her title as champion in a downhill event, having won gold in the parallel giant slalom snowboarding event in 2010."

Weiberger concludes:

Skiing brings the Dutch out of themselves, the mountains being familiar and yet different. More important, they are far away -- which, as the Dutch have demonstrated throughout their history, is no obstacle, just an excellent challenge.

We wish the Dutch "flatlanders" good luck in this latest and newest high altitude challenge.