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The Dutch Own A Single Sport Like No Other Country In The Winter Olympics

At the Olympics in South Korea, highly populated countries such as the U.S. can contend in a broad range of sports, including skiing, hockey, skating and more. But smaller countries have a harder time producing world-class athletes in so many disciplines, so they often concentrate on just a few. Then there’s the Netherlands, which owns one event alone: speedskating.

Through the end of competition Wednesday (South Korea time) at the Pyeongchang Games, 40 of the 42 gold medals Dutch competitors have won in any Winter Olympics had come in speedskating — not to be confused with speedskating’s more exciting half-brother, short-track speed skating, which the Olympics count as a separate discipline. Just seven of the nation’s 121 total Winter medals came in a sport other than speedskating, a measly 5.8 percent. At the previous Winter Olympics in 2014, the Dutch claimed 24 medals: 23 in speedskating and one, a bronze, in short track skating. Eight of their medals were gold.

In sports, a country’s dominance often fades — look at Romania in Olympic gymnastics or U.S. men in tennis Grand Slams. But Dutch speedskaters have sustained their superiority. In the 2010 Olympics, they won eight medals: seven in speedskating and one, a gold, in snowboarding. They won nine in 2006, all in speedskating. So far this Olympics, they’ve already won nine speedskating medals,1 including five golds. The most impressive Dutch medal so far in these games: a third consecutive gold in the 5,000 meter race for Sven Kramer, who is 31 years old. He is the first man to win three straight golds in the same Olympic speedskating event. He won this year’s race by nearly two seconds.

The Dutch do one thing very, very well

The countries that have won the largest share of their medals in one sport at the Winter Olympics

IN Sport ALL EVENTS Share of
Country Sport Gold Total Golds TOTAL Golds Total
Netherlands Speedskating 40 114 42 121 95.4% 94.2%
Croatia Alpine skiing 4 10 4 11 100.0 90.9
South Korea Short track 22 43 27 54 81.5 79.6
China Short track 9 30 12 53 75.0 56.6
Austria Alpine skiing 35 115 61 221 57.4 52.0
Sweden Cross-country ski 31 76 55 153 56.4 49.7
Finland Cross-country ski 20 77 43 164 46.5 47.0
Great Britain Figure skating 5 15 11 33 45.5 45.5
Switzerland Alpine skiing 20 59 50 139 40.0 42.5
France Alpine skiing 15 48 33 115 45.5 41.7

Among countries that won at least 10 medals in a single sport. Through Feb. 14, 2018 (South Korea time).

Source: Sports-Reference.com

Things weren’t always this way. Looking at all the medals ever given out in speedskating, the Dutch have captured 21 percent. This is impressive, but it’s short of other countries’ performances in other sports: Canada has won 31 percent of all curling medals, and the U.S. has won 29 percent of all snowboarding medals, for instance. But much of this has to do with the fact that speedskating has a long history at the Olympics, and the Netherlands has only reached its current level of dominance relatively recently. The Dutch won 13.1 percent of all speedskating medals between 1924 and the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, and all of those came after 1952. But since the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, the Netherlands has captured 36.6 percent of all podium spots.2

The Dutch dominance is so complete that it inspires wacky theories. NBC’s Katie Couric was mocked for her recent statement that the Dutch are so good because they have a longstanding tradition of skating from place to place on frozen canals. The problem: Those canals freeze only a few times a year, if at all, and when people skate on them, it’s for recreation. Dutch skeedskaters are also rumored to have an ideal body type for the sport, but while the country’s racers are often tall, so are many of their opponents from other countries. Nor do the Dutch use a proprietary method to glide past other competitors: While many members of the team have spectacular form, which includes bending low and skating with force and precision, the technique isn’t a secret.

The real cause, more than anything else, is dedication. Starting in childhood, Dutch skaters train with excellent instructors. The Dutch team’s skating equipment is the best in the world, too. For the Olympics in 2014, officials from the host city of Sochi went to the Netherlands to learn how to build a top-of-the-line racing rink. By the time they are ready to compete, Dutch stars have been skating in ideal conditions and learning how to peak in time for the biggest races.

The ultimate proof of a country’s prowess in an Olympic event is sweeping all three medals. The Netherlands managed it earlier this week, when Dutch women took gold, silver and bronze in a 3,000 meter speedskating race. In another race, the 31-year-old Ireen Wust won her fifth career gold medal and 10th overall medal, a speedskating record. That victory was a surprise, as the silver medalist, Miho Takagi of Japan, was a strong favorite. Wust is the first Dutch athlete to win five gold medals.

The only champions who beat out the Dutch in terms of winning all their medals in a single sport in either the Winter or Summer Games3 are Ethiopia and Jamaica, who excel in track and field races. Ethiopia has 53 summer medals, all of them in track and field. Jamaica, famous for the record-holding sprinter Usain Bolt, has won 98.7 percent of its medals in track. The Dutch are next on the list, at 94.2 percent.

The Summer Games’ one-sport specialists

The countries that have won the largest share of their Summer Olympic medals in one sport

Medals
Country Sport In sport Total share of total
Ethiopia Track & Field 53 53 100.0%
Jamaica Track & Field 77 78 98.7
Kenya Track & Field 93 100 93.0
Bahamas Track & Field 12 14 85.7
Morocco Track & Field 19 23 82.6
Trinidad and Tobago Track & Field 15 19 79.0
Turkey Wrestling 63 95 66.3
Slovakia Canoeing 18 28 64.3
Indonesia Badminton 19 30 63.3
Iran Wrestling 43 68 63.2

Among countries that won at least 10 medals in a single sport

Source: Sports-Reference.com

So, will the Dutch team’s rule ever end? This seems impossible now, especially given the relatively low levels of attention the sport gets in powerful countries like the U.S. But you never know. As the U.S. and many other countries have shown, Olympic dominance usually doesn’t last forever. Enjoy it, those of you from the Netherlands, while you can.

Footnotes

  1. Not counting their two on the short track, or the silver speedskating medal the country won on Thursday.

  2. Through the end of competition (Korea time) on Feb. 14, 2018.

  3. Among countries that have won at least 10 medals in a single sport.

Tom Perrotta is a tennis writer based out of Brooklyn and frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal.

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