Our second and final week of guest posts begins with this article from Stephen Airey.
Once upon a time, Great Britain had long track speed skating talent – the one where you do laps of a long, icy oval against the clock, as opposed to short track skating’s first-to-finish rough-and-tumble. But nobody British qualified for the Sochi 2014 long track skating events, with the sport long neglected in the UK.
Now, that may be set to change. Sam Airey, 15, is Britain’s first junior international long track speed skater. His father, Stephen, explains the unique features of the Dutch setup which have led to world domination, and looks at how that could influence Britain’s reborn team.
This guest post by: Stephen Airey
Why have the British faded away in long-track skating, while our neighbours (and historical partners in speed skating), the Dutch, rocketed to world domination?
After watching the Dutch win eight of a possible 12 gold medals in Sochi, and noting the total absence of any British representation in the last two Olympics, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a Dutch sport that the UK never took up.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
While the UK has never been dominantly successful in long track, it certainly played a prominent role in the development of the sport and has a history of speed skating going back more than 300 years.
After being introduced by King James II in the late 1600s, speed skating flourished in the UK – in particular in the Fens (certainly helped by the influx of Dutch to help drain the area) and to a lesser extent on the lakes in Scotland. Ice skating became very popular amongst all classes, with Queen Victoria reputed to have met her husband Prince Albert during an ice skating trip – and nearly lost him when he fell through the ice on another!
Organised races began to be held in the 1800s, eventually becoming so popular that special spectator trains were laid on from London. It is from these beginnings that the formal rules and sport of speed skating was born and later re-exported to the Netherlands, where the UK helped the Dutch to set up the KNSB (the Dutch skating association). Indeed, the very first Dutch Championships also involved a number of invited British skaters – including the eventual winner!
The UK continued playing an active role in speed skating right up to the early 1990s, participating in most of the Winter Olympics and achieving a best finish of fifth place. Since then the sport has been kept alive only by a handful of diehard Fen skaters, alongside enthusiastic (and talented) individuals such as Phil Brojaka – who narrowly missed out on the 2010 Olympics – and Scott Anderson, who has been financing himself to train at the KIA Skating Academy in Germany. In the meantime, the Dutch have gone from strength to strength in the sport.
Why should two neighbouring countries, with identical climates, similar backgrounds and wealth, diverge so dramatically in their performance in a sport in which they have a shared history?
As with most things, there are multiple factors. However, looking closely at each of these, it becomes clear that the UK (and indeed any similar country) could emulate the Dutch success with the correct commitment, approach and financing. Here are the key distinguishing factors behind the Dutch success:
Popularity of the sport (and related sports of cycling and in-line skating) and a large grassroots participation
Speed skating is hugely popular in the Netherlands. The historical popularity the sport once enjoyed in the UK clearly continued and thrived in the Netherlands, not only due to large proportions of the populace having easy access to naturally occurring ice, but because the facilities were developed. Being masters of water management, creating artificial, easily frozen natural ice rinks came easily and were widespread.
Being shallow, these froze more readily than the canals and lakes used in the UK and hence put less dependency on the winter weather, so whereas the British love affair with speed skating faded over periods of warmer winters with little natural ice, in the Netherlands it did not and it continued to be ingrained into the culture of the country. These ice rinks also slowly developed and evolved and the Netherlands took up artificially frozen rinks and then progressed to semi-covered and covered rinks, maintaining the large 400m format.
Currently the Netherlands has more than 150,000 members of the KNSB and an estimated one million recreational skaters – the vast majority of which are speed skaters. But it is not only ice skating that is popular in the Netherlands. The two tightly related sports of cycling and in-line skating are also very popular in their own right and the flow of athletes between the three sports is both large and actively encouraged. Whilst these large numbers might seem on the surface to be the reason for the Dutch success, this is far from the case. Only a very small percentage of these skaters ever progress beyond recreational or club level.
[aesop_video align=”center” src=”youtube” id=”aC5yxStvjV4″ loop=”on” autoplay=”on” controls=”off” viewstart=”off” caption=”Video: The art of speed skating with Dutch coach Gerard Kemkers”]
The key advantage of such a large base (which actually takes significant resources to maintain – resources that are directed away from top sport development) is that the chance of discovering natural skating talent is much higher. If you can find a way to identify the natural talent without having to rely on such mass participation in ice skating, it brings little further benefit at international level (I would like to point out that I am actually a big advocate of grassroots sports and sport for pleasure – but here I discuss only the impact for international level competition and the two do not always sit harmoniously side by side).
Whilst other countries are unlikely to develop the level of fanatical mass interest in speed skating exhibited by the Dutch, it is also clearly – and thankfully – not a prerequisite for success and should therefore not be considered a barrier to other countries, where the key challenge will be to promote awareness of the sport and find the raw talent.
Such talent discovery should clearly look primarily to cycling and in-line skating – both of which tend to be more popular in many countries. Indeed, in the UK the number of active cyclists is very large and the standard of the sporting elite is very high. For some of these, who may never manage to gain a place on the British cycling team, it may be more sensible for them to switch to speed skating – reversing the many examples of speed skaters who are also able to perform at top level in cycling (Koen Verweij, Sven Kramer, Clara Hughes, Eric Heiden and Chris Witty have all been successful cyclists either before or after their ice skating career – with Clara winning Olympic medals in both sports!).
The challenge for these countries is in setting up, and financing, a system that enables speed skating potential within these other sports to be discovered and developed. This is an area where organisations such as the ISU – skating’s world governing body – could play a key role and give a major boost to the sport.
The Netherlands has the highest density of 400m ice rinks of anywhere in the world (although Japan has more of them, for the Dutch it works out at a 400m rink for every 1million inhabitants. The UK would need nearly 70 of them to reach the same density!!).
Superficially, this would also seem to be a key reason for their current dominance, but again, at national and international level, this is not so. Of the seventeen 400m rinks in the Netherlands, only a few are of international standard and the highest areas of population density are rather perversely also the areas with the fewest 400m rinks, yet these areas still produce a very high proportion of the top Dutch skaters.
Furthermore, a 400m rink – whilst clearly important – is not the be all and end all when it comes to facilities for speed skating. A significant proportion of the training can be performed without going near one. Indeed, the Dutch rinks all shut down completely at the end of March and remain closed until mid-September – the skaters certainly don’t stop training in this time. In-line skating, cycling, gym work and short track play an equally important part of the training for a long track speed skater and, whilst the Netherlands also has excellent facilities for these sports with cycling available and safe everywhere and with over 80 in-line tracks nationwide, so do many other countries, including the UK. A significant amount of the training can be done almost anywhere. Facilities should therefore not be a hard barrier to the development of the sport to a given level.
It is clear, however, that relatively easy access to a 400m track is required in order to learn and practice the finer points of technique and that top skaters will need to be located near such a rink to be competitive at international level. In the long term, a 400m rink is an essential element of the development of the sport within a country, but the number of such rinks in a country does not need to be large for successful long-term international competitiveness and, indeed, even just one may be sufficient.
As an aside, it is interesting to note that while the UK currently (and very sadly) has no ‘artificial ice’ (man-made ice) 400m facilities, the earliest attempts at artificial ice rinks were actually in the UK, during the so called ‘rink mania’ of 1841-44. The UK also sported the first-ever artificially frozen ice rinks, in London in the 1870s (yes, skating was big in the UK), although these rinks were small and only for the gentry who practised figure skating rather than the commoners who were the ones who raced. Sadly – at least for long track – the small format of these rinks continued and only 60 x 30m style artificial rinks were ever built in the UK.
A second and less obvious way in which the popularity of the sport helps in the Netherlands is that there is a huge demand for TV coverage, and a significant return on (and hence interest in) sponsorship.
For national and international level skating, this is perhaps of even larger benefit than talent identification. The financing available for the sport in the Netherlands is likely not matched anywhere else in the world (apart from maybe in Korea or China). Not only does the KNSB have large sponsors in the form of KPN and Essent, but significant sponsorship occurs at every level of the sport. Children grow up loving skating, become successful businessmen and women and then support their own children in the sport by sponsoring clubs or teams. There is sufficient financing (and volunteers) that it is common for small club-level or regional-level training teams of 6 to 12 skaters to form, supported by their own sponsor. This leads to what is perhaps the most important aspect of why the Dutch are so good – the organisation of the sport.
Organisation and research
In most countries and most sports, the organisation from club to national level is a pyramid ending in a single national team. That team’s members train together under one or maybe two coaches.
Skating in Holland has gone in a completely different direction.
This, perhaps more than anything, has catapulted the Netherlands to such dominance that they can win all podium places in multiple distances at an Olympics.
Whilst the Dutch have a traditional pyramidal organisation for junior talent development (clubs to districts to regions to national teams), there also exists a culture of small teams. Similarly talented skaters tend to group together, get sponsors and form a training team. This structure is reflected back in the Dutch equivalent of a national squad – the so called ‘Commercial Teams’.
Before the Sochi Olympics, the Dutch national team was actually split across eight of these commercial teams, each with a different setup, different training focus and different specialisms, but each having to compete against each other to get their skaters to represent the Netherlands. This arrangement was the brainchild of Rintje Ritsma and came about as a direct response to the perceived strength of the North American teams at the time (Canada and USA).
This team structure breeds intense competition within the Netherlands, with a large number of full-time and part-time professional skaters who are also skating to maintain their livelihood and their sponsor. It also creates a clear career/development path for younger skaters who see it is possible to eke a living from their sport and don’t necessarily have to make a black-and-white decision between education and sport, but can combine both.
[aesop_video align=”center” src=”youtube” id=”ZT5A3zoDSFM” loop=”on” autoplay=”on” controls=”off” viewstart=”off” caption=”Video: Stefan Groothuis explains why the Dutch are dominant”]
Finally, and most importantly, it gives opportunities for multiple coaches to coach at the highest level. The fierce competition requires that they innovate and work with universities on research in order to improve and ensure their team (and hence sponsor) gets the results and publicity that are demanded.
Each of these teams is essentially equivalent to the national team of most other countries, but with the freedom to experiment, innovate or specialise in their training in order to get the competitive edge. This does not exist anywhere else.
There is a secondary effect to this team structure which other countries can exploit: as there are many more possibilities for coaches in the Netherlands and they have an excellent training programme for coaches run by the KNSB, a significant number of people want to become coaches and train for it. There are still more good coaches with ambition in the Netherlands than positions for them. Most are very happy to jump at the chance to ‘climb the ladder’ and train an enthusiastic group of skaters, either within the Netherlands or in other countries.
So what’s stopping other countries?
Of all the aspects addressed above, it seems that financing is currently the biggest issue for most non-Dutch teams and especially those countries without a 400m facility (eg UK, Australia). These countries have particular difficulty attracting sponsors from their home countries as the television exposure is small and the skating base is not large enough to support top athletes without additional income.
The other advantages that the Dutch have can be largely emulated, by-passed or even negated by any country with sufficient will and financing to do so. There are far more talented and experienced Dutch coaches than they have teams to coach and, with most having a passion only for the sport and working with motivated athletes, they are happy to share their knowledge or face a new coaching challenge.
The majority of facilities for training exist in many countries – including the UK, which does not have a 400m rink. Whilst I am not suggesting that you don’t need one, you can certainly progress a long way with existing facilities and frequent visits to those in other countries before you need one in your own country. In the longer term, a basic 400m facility, more than adequate for training to international level, can be built for under £20m, run for less than the running costs of a swimming pool, and used in the summer for in-line skating. It is not a large investment for even a moderately large town, but the difficulty in convincing councillors with no awareness of the sport to make such an investment is a major barrier.
Therefore, the key barriers for other countries (even non-400m rink owners) to compete successfully against the Dutch are not facilities nor mass participation, but organisation and fostering competition between coaches as well as skaters, and the financing to enable this and facilitate the training of talented athletes.
A plan for UK long track
The National Ice Skating Association (NISA, the British ice skating association) has already made progress towards rebuilding British long track with the appointment of a development manager for the sport last year, tasked with restarting and developing the sport.
In the last year, NISA have been working with coaches, teams and organisations in the Netherlands to secure training and competition possibilities for British long track skaters. They have set up the rules and infrastructure for the sport in the UK and have been busy searching for and coordinating the development of existing talent, whilst looking for ways to exploit the synergies with other sports.
These efforts are paying off with the first junior records being set, the first-ever British Junior International skater competing in the European Youth Championships, and significant up-and-coming talent identified – with currently six skaters in the world top 50 for their age. The potential for the future certainly looks promising.
[aesop_video align=”center” src=”youtube” id=”t0PBpIbN8aI” loop=”on” autoplay=”on” controls=”off” viewstart=”off” caption=”Video: Inside an international speed skating event”]
NISA is currently working on planning the development of the next steps – a possible introduction programme for in-line skaters and cyclists, the initiation of a British Championships, and ways to train coaches. If the financing can be found, these will mark significant steps for the sport. All existing skaters are currently based in and training abroad (mainly in the Netherlands) but this need not be the case going forward, and it could be envisaged that a number of ‘multi-sport’ athletes remain based in the UK, travelling regularly to the Netherlands throughout the winter to improve their technique and compete.
The key challenge in this (re)development journey, at least in the short term, will clearly be financing such efforts. While NISA is working hard on finding sponsors, they are also looking at other ways to raise the relatively modest funding required to maintain the development momentum. If these succeed, there is reason to believe that British long track will continue to take significant advances in its development next season.
It will, hopefully, not be long before the UK can become competitive at international level again.
The UK has the talent, most of the facilities and all the supporting sport infrastructure to be highly successful at international level in long track speed skating. The fact that we have no long track facility – whilst rather embarrassing for a country such as the UK and something definitely needed long-term – is not a barrier to success in the short term.
Long track represents probably one of the most cost-effective means of winter sport Olympic representation for the UK and other similar countries. With the history of the sport in the UK, it would be a great pity for us to remain out of the international competition scene.
This is something that NISA is working hard to rectify with solid plans and cooperation with our historical partners, the Dutch. The synergies of long track with in-line skating, short track, cycling and triathlon – areas where the UK is strong – should not be underestimated. By leveraging the existing talent in these sports, a British long track program will also feed back into strengthening them, whilst existing expat and dual-nationality skaters can give the sport a flying start.
The greatest hurdle that has to be overcome in the development of British long track is funding. A supportive sponsor is clearly urgently needed to allow skaters to develop and compete, while assistance from other sources would be needed to help athletes cross over from other sports.
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