Why do Dutch rule speed skating? It’s their way of life

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source: AP
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SOCHI, Russia – Hans Van Zetten has lived a pretty fascinating Dutch life. He was a high level gymnast before getting hurt. He joined the army and became a Lieutenant Colonel. After he got out, he became the Netherlands’ national gymnastics coach. After that, he became a hugely popular television commentator for gymnastics and figure skating. He seems to be about as popular an announcer there as, say, Vin Scully is in America.

Now, Van Zetten looks out at the speed skating track.

“I do not understand this sport,” he says. “To me, they just go round and round. I like things that are artistic, you understand? This is my background. Artistry. This takes great strength and endurance. This is not artistic.”

Then he sits down and settles in for the longest speed skating race there is, the 10,000 meters. He shrugs his shoulders.

“I am Dutch,” he says. “So I am here for my country.”

* * *

You probably have heard that what the Netherlands is doing in Olympic speed skating here is somewhere North of insane and West of impossible. They have given out 27 speed skating medals in Sochi so far. The Netherlands has won 19 of them.

Yeah, take a moment to ponder that. Nineteen of 27. There have been nine speed skating races. The Dutch have won gold in six of those and medaled in all nine. The Dutch have swept gold-silver-bronze FOUR TIMES already. The Dutch have as many speed skating medals as Russia has TOTAL medals.

Speed skating is everything in the Netherlands. Everything. The Dutch have won 106 Winter Olympic medals. They have 101 of them in long track speed skating. The Netherlands produces the television feed for the Olympics. They bring the most fans to every event around the world, most of them decked in orange. When a major speed skating championship is held – from Moscow to Salt Lake City – there will inevitably be Dutch advertising on the wall surrounding the track. That’s because more people are watching in the Netherlands than anywhere else.

Put it this way: At the speed skating venue, there are clocks on the wall showing the time in four cities around the world. One is Sochi. The other three are Calgary, Nagano and Heerenveen. Well, three of those are Olympic cities. The fourth? Heerenveen is a city of about 30,000 in the North of the Netherlands. Why is it on this wall? You can only assume because it’s the hometown of Sven Kramer, one of the greatest of all Dutch speed skaters and the man who all of us came to see race on Tuesday.

In speed skating, see, EVERYONE is on Dutch time.

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Kramer came in to Tuesday’s event having already won at 5,000 meters, his second Olympic gold medal and fifth Olympic medal overall. Yet, it wasn’t his extraordinary success but his one crushing disappointment that made him the story. In Vancouver four years ago, Kramer was the huge favorite to win the grueling 10,000. And he thought he did win. He rose his arms as he crossed the finish line seconds faster than anyone else.

Unfortunately he made a blunder that was so fundamental, nobody is quite sure what to compare it to in other sports. Maybe it is like missing a base after hitting a home run. See, in speed skating, the skaters switch lanes every lap (because the inside lap has a shorter distance around the turns). On the 17th of the 25 laps, Kramer was about to change lanes when a coach frantically pointed to the wrong lane. Kramer followed the coach’s instructions and so was in the wrong lane for the rest of the race.

He was disqualified.

Kramer was desperate for redemption. He even skipped one of his usual races so that he would be fully rested for the 10,000. He knew the whole nation would be back home watching.

Kramer also knew that his greatest challenges would come. … from other Dutch skaters. “Every Dutch person skates, every single one,” Van Zetten says, and to explain the popularity of the sport he told me about an extraordinary thing called the Elfstedentocht. Whenever winter in the Netherlands gets cold enough to create thick ice around the country  – this has not happened since 1997, by the way – the country will hold an outdoor 200-kilometer race through 11 cities, all of it on natural ice. The winner of the Elfstedentocht is held in esteem for the rest of his or her life.

But the Elfstedentocht is more than a race. It is a national celebration of ice skating. Twenty-thousand or more people participate, and the number is only that low because they cap it. There’s a HUGE waiting list just hoping to get into the Elfstedentocht. For a nation dwarfed in size and history by surrounding nations like England and Germany and France, speed skating is something that belongs to the Netherlands, something that is their very own.

“We have so many great skaters back home,” said the Netherlands’ Jorrit Bergsma,  Kramer’s top competitor. “There is so much competition all around us. This makes us stronger.”

RELATED: Dutch prime minister halts Bergsma in full flow

The first Dutch skater to go in the 10,000 was 37-year-old Bob de Jong, who was competing at his fifth Olympics. He was the silver medalist at the Nagano Games – when Kramer was just 11. He won the 10,000 gold in Torino and won the bronze in Vancouver.  Bob de Jong got off to a superb start, but he is 37, and this race is a little more than six miles. He simply could not sustain the pace. He still finished more than seven seconds faster than anyone who had raced before him. He literally lapped the German Alexej Baumgaertner racing beside him.

“This was not fast enough,” Van Zetten sad. “Maybe for bronze.”

Van Zetten, who had talked about how little he knew about the sport, suddenly seemed to know quite a bit.

Next was Bergsma, and he got off to a solid but unspectacular start. He was ahead of de Jong’s pace, but not by much. Halfway through the race, he was on pace for a good but not great time. Then, suddenly, something took hold of him. He would say that it was a feeling he’d never felt before. He just took off.

The best skaters in the 10,000 will have occasional 400-meter laps at 30 seconds. That is absurdly fast for a race this long (it’s roughly 30 mph), and few can maintain that pace for very long. Nobody does 30-second laps in the second half of the race.

Bergsma not only skated 30-second laps but four laps in a row BROKE 30 seconds. For a sea-level race like this one (skater go quite a bit slower at sea level than at altitude) this was simply unprecedented. The people who know compared it to running a four-minute mile at in the latter stages of a marathon.

“No, I’ve never done this before,” Bergsma said with a big grin on his face. His time of 12:44:45 shattered the Olympic record by more than 14 seconds and broke Kramer’s sea-level world record too. The final 2000 or so meters were about as extraordinary as anything that will be done at these Games.

Then it was Kramer’s time. He understood the challenge of what he had to do. And he went out fast. Crazy fast. Halfway through the race he was not only three seconds ahead of Bergsma’s pace, he was on pace to set a world record. Not the sea-level world record, but the overall record. His strategy was simple: He had to go as fast as he could for as long as he could. And then he had to hold on at the end.

The trouble was, Bergsma’s last few laps were indescribable, and Kramer could not keep up. His three-second lead began to fade, slowly at first and then he would dropping almost a second a lap. With two laps to go for Kramer, Bergsma hugged his coach. He knew he had won the gold medal. Kramer skated nine seconds faster than the previous Olympic record. But it was five seconds off Bergsma’s gold. And the final result fit right in line with these Games.

  • Gold: Jorrit Bergsma, Netherlands
  • Silver: Sven Kramer, Netherlands
  • Bronze: Bob de Jong, Netherlands

“Jorrit was unbeatable today,” Kramer said. “He was unbelievable. And I wasn’t good enough.”

Bergsma, meanwhile, was asked if he felt for Kramer because of what happened in Vancouver. First, the press conference was paused while he took a call from the Dutch Prime Minister. Then he said he did feel sympathy. But, in one of my favorite quotes of the Games so far, he added: “I will not give my gold away for Sven’s story.”

RELATED: Kramer falls short in elusive 10,000 quest

The Dutch are skating on a different plateau, they are having their own Olympics at the Adler Arena, where the only real time that matters is Heerenveen time. Hans Van Zetten thoroughly enjoyed the event. He felt sad for Kramer but was awed by Bergsma and thrilled for de Jong’s to win a medal at the final Olympics.

“This is our pride,” he said of speed skating and the Netherlands. “This is ours. Every country should have its pride. Don’t you agree?”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar details passing on 1968 Olympics in new book

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar accomplished just about everything in basketball. Three NCAA titles at UCLA, six titles and six MVP awards in the NBA. Arguably, the greatest center of all time.

But Abdul-Jabbar’s trophy case is missing one item that is owned by the likes of Michael JordanLeBron James and Bill Russell.

An Olympic gold medal.

Even though the NBA barrier to the Olympics wasn’t broken until 1992, Abdul-Jabbar had one shot at an Olympics in 1968 following his junior season playing for John Wooden at UCLA.

He declined an invitation to try out.

Abdul-Jabbar, now 70 years old, detailed that decision in his new book, “Coach Wooden and Me,” published earlier this month:

My development as a basketball player paralleled my evolution as a social activist. The more confident and successful I was on the court, the more confident I felt about expressing my political convictions. That personal progression reached its most controversial climax in 1968, when I refused to join the Olympic basketball team. This started a firestorm of criticism, racial epithets, and death threats that people still ask me about today.

I didn’t reach that decision easily. I really, really wanted to join the team. It would be an exciting challenge to play against the best basketball players in the world as well as to be on the same team as the best college players in the country. Plus, the adventure of going to Mexico City and hanging with athletes from around the world appealed to the young man in me.

But the idea of going to Mexico to have fun seemed so selfish in light of the racial violence that was facing the country. The previous summer had seen two major riots, one in Newark that had lasted five days, and one in Detroit that had lasted eight days. And on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated. White America seemed ready to do anything necessary to stop the progress of civil rights, and I thought that going to Mexico would seem like I was either fleeing the issue or more interested in my career than in justice. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I did go and we won, I’d be bringing honor to the country that was denying our rights. It was the same feeling I’d had that last year playing for Coach Donahue after he’d called me a nigger.

I seemed to permanently reside in the exclusive neighborhood of Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

That same year The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published, posthumously since he’d been assassinated three years earlier. I didn’t just read it, I devoured every chapter, every page, every word. His story couldn’t have been more different than mine—street hustler and pimp who goes to prison, converts to Islam, emerges as an enlightened political leader—but I felt as if every insult he suffered and every insight he discovered were mine. He put into words what was in my heart; he clearly articulated what I had only vaguely expressed.

Malcolm was dead. Dr. King was dead.

Black leaders were an endangered species. That enraged me. There had been public accusations that the U.S. government, specifically J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, were targeting black leaders in secret campaigns to discredit, humiliate, and publicly ruin them. White America dismissed this as black paranoia due to lack of proof, but black Americans knew it was true simply from observation. It wasn’t until two years later that these suspicions were confirmed, when anti-war activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and found classified documents that detailed the FBI’s active policy of intimidation against black leaders.

It was too difficult for me to get enthusiastic about representing a country that refused to represent me or others of my color. Another reason I chose not to participate was my intense dislike for the International Olympic Committee’s president, Avery Brundage, who, during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, benched two Jewish runners so as not to embarrass Adolph Hitler by having Jews win a gold medal. Not only was this against the Olympic rules, but information has since been revealed that Brundage’s construction company was bidding for German contracts, which is why he was so eager to please Hitler. I couldn’t bring myself to work under the supervision of someone like that. America was angry at me for not showing gratitude to the country that had given me so many opportunities. I was grateful, but I also thought it disingenuous to show appreciation unless all people had the same opportunities. Just because I had made it to a lifeboat didn’t mean I could forget those who hadn’t. Or not try to keep the next ship from sinking.

To their credit, no one at UCLA tried to talk me out of my decision. Coach Wooden respected my choice and never brought it up. The university issued a statement explaining that I had turned down the invitation because it conflicted with classes, but I openly discussed my decision with the press. Joe Garagiola interviewed me on the Today show in a contentious segment in which he proclaimed the usual motto of entitled white people: America, love it or leave it. I couldn’t help but wonder what he would have said to the colonists who declared independence and fought to create their own country. Britain, love it or leave it.

I tried to make the point that true patriotism is about acknowledging problems and, rather than running away from them, joining together to fix them.

Although I missed the Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos made international news and Olympic history when, during the medal ceremony for the men’s 200-meter sprint, in which Smith received the gold medal and Carlos the bronze medal, they raised their gloved fists into the air in what was then known as the “Black Power salute.” This was a gesture of acknowledgment of the racial injustice in America. The U.S. Olympic Committee suspended them. They returned home to angry criticism and death threats. At a time when black leaders were routinely slaughtered, death threats were taken seriously.

Although Coach Wooden didn’t discuss my choice with me, I had the feeling that he disapproved, though not because of anything he said or did, even indirectly. I just knew that he was very patriotic. He had been a lieutenant in the navy during World War II. I couldn’t imagine him endorsing my refusal to play in the Olympics and bring glory to the U.S.

I found out years later just how wrong I was.

A couple years ago I received a letter from a woman I had never met, a letter to her that Coach Wooden had written in response to a note she had sent to him complaining about my decision not to participate in the Olympics. Until I’d held it in my hands, I hadn’t even known it existed. I opened the letter and began to read Coach’s neat script:

Dear Mrs. Hough,


The comments of this most unusual young man also disturbed me, but I have seen him hurt so much by the remarks of white people that I am probably more tolerant than most.

I have heard remarks within his hearing such as “Hey, look at that big black freak,” “Did you ever see such a big N—-r?” and others of a similar nature that might tend to turn the head of a more mature person in normal times. I am truly afraid that he will never find any peace of mind regardless or not of whether he makes a million dollars. He may be able to afford material things, but they are a poor substitute for true peace of mind.

You may not have seen or read about the later interview when he said that there were so many things wrong at present of the treatment of his race in this country that it was difficult for him to claim it as his own.

Thank you for your interest,

John Wooden

I read the letter again. Then again. Oh, Coach, I thought, I wish I’d known how you felt. If only to ease the burden you’d taken on to defend me. I thought back on my own arrogance at thinking I understood the man by reducing him to the kind of easy stereotype, the very thing that I’d been complaining about my whole life when it was done to me. He’d been too humble ever to say anything to me about the letter. Most people would have made a point of telling me how they’d come to my defense. But Coach Wooden didn’t care about receiving credit. A good deed was its own reward. Seeking praise or gratitude would have negated the deed.

Coach Dale Brown once asked him why he didn’t take some credit for the things he’d done or why he hadn’t been more outspoken about the civil rights movement. Brown recalled, “He held up his thumb and index finger so closely together you barely could slide a piece of onionskin between them. ‘That’s why,’ he said. I asked him what he meant and he explained, ‘That’s how much difference I would have made. So I tried to make a difference in other things.’”

I shook my head as I folded up the letter. Coach had been dead for several years and I would never get to thank him. Even then, at my age of sixty-seven, he was still teaching me about humility.

Excerpted from the COACH WOODEN AND ME by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Copyright © 2017 by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. 

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Runner Gabriele Grunewald delays chemo for U.S. Championships

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Middle-distance runner Gabriele Grunewald reserved this month for racing.

Next month, chemotherapy.

Grunewald delayed her latest cancer treatments a few weeks — with her doctor’s consent — in a quest to qualify for the U.S. Championships at the end of June in Sacramento, Calif.

Should she reach the time standard, she fully intends on taking the starting line — no matter how she may feel in the midst of chemo for a disease that’s gone from her salivary gland to her liver.

“I’m trying to keep my life normal, and not let cancer dictate everything I do,” said the 30-year-old Grunewald , who finished in 4 minutes, 12.29 seconds in the 1500m at the USA Track and Field Distance Classic on Thursday, narrowly missing the qualifying time for nationals of 4:09.50. “So I’m just taking it a week at a time, one race at a time, just trying to live as much of my life as I can in a meaningful way.”

Her next chance to achieve the standard for nationals will be at the Prefontaine Classic this weekend in Eugene, Ore. She’s also contemplating racing at the Adidas Boost Boston Games on June 2, which would happen to be right around the time she’s scheduled to undergo the first of up to six rounds of chemo.

“If this is the end (of competitive running) for me, I want to get in a couple of more races,” explained Grunewald, who could be added to the field at nationals if it isn’t full. “I don’t want to drop everything just because I have cancer.

“I do think that I have some good running in my legs right now.”

The former University of Minnesota standout got a late start on training this season, but those frigid runs over the winter in Minneapolis made her stronger and stronger. And that’s with a healing 13-inch scar across her stomach, the one from surgery last August to remove cancer from her liver.

It’s a cancer that resurfaced on a follow-up scan in March — the latest chapter in her ongoing battle with the disease.

In 2009, Grunewald was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare form of cancer in her salivary gland, which led to surgery. A year later, it was found in her thyroid and she had that removed, along with receiving radioactive iodine treatment.

Then, for the next several seasons, she was symptom-free, and racing better than ever:

— Fourth at the 2012 Olympic Trials, narrowly missing the squad for the London Games

— A 3000m title at the 2014 USA indoor championships

— Personal-best times in the 800m, 1500m, mile, 3000m, two-mile and 5000m

There was also this race, one of her more memorable performances: Finishing the 1500m in 4:01.48 on July 19, 2013, in Monaco. The three Americans who wound up in front of her that day — Jenny Simpson, Brenda Martinez and Shannon Rowbury — would later comprise the Rio Olympic team for the event.

“That was a race where there was a glimmer there, of what’s possible for me,” said Grunewald, who recently chronicled her journey with a blog . “But things haven’t turned out as perfectly as I’d hoped.”

Early last August, a month after finishing 12th at the Olympic Trials, her husband, who’s just finishing up his residency in internal medicine, gave her a hug and noticed her stomach felt different.

A tumor in her liver. She had surgery on Aug. 26 to remove the growth, with doctors feeling optimistic they got it all.

Her recovery was slow, though, with a four-mile run causing pain because of the incision. Around December, she ran eight miles, which was a big step as she began feeling more and more like her old running self.

“No matter what, when I’m on a run, I feel hopeful about the future,” said Grunewald, who’s not ruling out an attempt to make the 2020 Tokyo Games.

This spring, another obstacle: Finding out cancer returned to her liver — small tumors that couldn’t be treated through surgery. She will have a consultation for a biopsy next week and start chemo — something she’s never gone through — soon after.

“I was so excited to get back into fitness, to come back this year, to accomplish some of the goals that I wasn’t able to do last summer — and this came up,” Grunewald said. “The nature of my disease is it’s somewhat unpredictable. It really can come back whenever.”

A few more trips around the track this month — to keep her mind off what awaits and to see what she can do.

“I’m definitely scared, but I’m hopeful that maybe, even if I can’t 100 percent get rid of it, perhaps it can co-exist with me,” Grunewald said. “I’m just trying to hang on to running, because running has helped me so much.”

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