The Netherlands is sending its biggest-ever team to the Winter Olympics in Sochi and hopes are high of a record medal haul as well.
The squad, 43 strong, is dominated by speed skaters, a sport in which the Dutch are among the best in the world. The Olympics start on Thursday, February 6.
The likes of world champions Sven Kramer and Ireen Wüst are tipped to take gold in several speed skating events.
Defending 1,500 metre champion Wüst, for example, is taking part in four distances plus the team pursuit.
Kramer, the world record holder in the 5,000 and 10,000, will be hoping to avenge his disqualification in the 2010 Vancouver games 10,000 metres which came after his coach told him to change lanes at the wrong moment.
Mark Tuitert is also defending his 1,500 metre Olympic title. ‘What makes speed skating so exciting is that it is all down to 10ths and 100ths of a second,’ says diehard fan Johan van Buren. ‘One bad changeover and you’ve had it.’
The Netherlands took 34 athletes to the Vancouver winter games and won more long-track speed skating medals than any other nation – three gold, one silver and three bronze.
‘Our goal is to improve on Vancouver. And considering our current level of form, that is a realistic goal,’ Arie Koops, who is in charge of the Dutch Winter Olympics efforts, told news agency AP. In total, 12 gold medals for speed skating are up for grabs in Sochi.
Dutch athletes who win medals at the Winter Olympics in Sochi will take home more than gold, silver or bronze. The Dutch Olympics committee will also pay them a reward for each individual win: €30,000 for gold, €22.500 for silver and €15,000 for bronze.
Speed skaters, such as Sven Kramer, who are expected to pick up several medals, will get a lower payout for their second and third wins. Team members also get a lower payout: €11,000 for gold, €8,000 for silver and €5,000 for bronze.
The financial rewards have not gone up since the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the winners also have to pay income tax on their prizes.
The Dutch are skating mad but so far this year have been deprived of their favourite winter pastime, thanks to above seasonal temperatures.
There has, for example, been no speculation about the chances of holding the Elfstedentocht – the almost mythical 200 km race around the 11 cities of Friesland, which was last held in 1997.
Nevertheless, the speed skating squad have a large following of die-hard fans who fill the stadiums with their orange outfits and are travelling on mass to Sochi.
Brewing group Heineken will be adding to the atmosphere with the traditional Holland Heineken House, a bar-come-club where Dutch fans mingle with the athletes and their families and celebrate each medal.
The fans ‘create this feeling of warmth and some skaters have said for them, it can make that vital tenth of a second difference,’ Ruud Bakker of the Kleintje Pils (small beer) oompah band, which follows the team, told AP.
King Willem-Alexander, who will be attending the games along with queen Máxima, is among speed skating’s keenest fans. He completed the Elfstedentocht as a young man.
Skating fever will start on Saturday February 8 when Sven Kramer, Jorrit Bergsma and Jan Blokhuijsen take part in the 5,000 metres.
The final individual skating event is on February 19 when Ireen Wüst and Yvonne Nauta are in the women’s 3,000 metres race. The pursuit races take place on February 21 and 22 and the Dutch team are hot favourites to win both titles.
Not all the Dutch efforts will be focused on the speed skating tracks however. Snowboarder Nicolien Sauerbreij is defending her 2010 gold medal in the giant slalom.
The Dutch team
– Edwin van Calker
– Esmé Kamphuis
– Ireen Wüst (1,000, 1500, 3,000, 5,000 metres, team pursuit)
– Lotte van Beek (500, 1,000, 1,500 metres, team pursuit)
– Antoinette de Jong (3,000 metres)
– Jorien ter Mors (1,500 metres, team pursuit)
– Carien Kleibeuker (5,000 metres)
– Marrit Leenstra (500, 1,000, 1,500 metres, team pursuit)
– Annouk van der Weijden (3,000 metres)
– Margot Boer (500, 1,000 metres)
– Yvonne Nauta (5,000 metres)
– Laurine van Riessen (500 metres)
– Sven Kramer (1,500, 5,000, 10,000 metres, team pursuit)
– Jorrit Bergsma (5,000, 10,000 metres, team pursuit)
– Michel Mulder (500, 1,000 metres)
– Mark Tuitert (1,000, 1,500 metres)
– Stefan Groothuis (500, 1,000, 1,500 metres)
– Bob de Jong (10,000 metres)
– Ronald Mulder (500 metres)
– Jan Blokhuijsen (5,000 metres, team pursuit)
– Jan Smeekens (500 metres)
– Koen Verweij (1,000, 1,500 metres, team pursuit)
– Sanne van Kerkhof
– Yara van Kerkhof
– Jorien ter Mors
– Lara van Ruijven
– Rianne de Vries
– Daan Breeuwsma
– Niels Kerstholt
– Sjinkie Knegt
– Freek van der Wart
– Bell Berghuis (snowboard cross)
– Cheryl Maas (slope style)
– Michelle Dekker (parallel slalom, parallel giant slalom)
– Nicolien Sauerbreij (parallel slalom, parallel giant slalom)
– Dimi de Jong (halfpipe)
– Dolf van der Wal (halfpipe)