February 12, 2012 65 Comments
The Netherlands is at the moment in an ice skating frenzy. Every canal, shallow lake and river which has frozen from days of sustained sub-zero temperature are venues for ice skating. Some places are holding ice skating races and a colleague of mine told me that there was even an ice disco at her parents’ place in Almere. We even came close to having the almost mythical “Elfstedentoch”, that almost 200 kms. ice skating tour/race that spans 11 cities up north in the province of Friesland. The whole country waited in bated breath for the decision of the Vereniging Elfstedentoch (Eleven Cities’ Tour Committee) last Wednesday if the tour will push through (the 16th in its history which dates back to 1909 and the first this century). Even foreign members of the press descended in Friesland to cover this event and were also betting for a GO on the Elfstedentoch which is hailed as the creme de la creme, the tour of all tours and the race of all races in outdoor skating event not just in The Netherlands but in the whole of Europe.
The country got caught up in maelstorm of emotions that it will have its 16th Elfstedentoch this winter when the oftentimes very reserved and sceptical Vereniging Elfstendentoch had its first meeting earlier in the week. Then a contingent of 50-man army members were sent to Friesland to prepare part of the route, clearing the ice of snow so that the sub-zero freeze will still enable the ice cover to further grow especially at night. The Friesians also rallied to the challenge, mobilizing everyone to do their share in clearing up the ice of snow cover either by hand or with the aid of some ice-clearing machine. The committee requires that the average ice thickness to be a minimum of 15 cm. in the entire route in order to be safe to accommodate 16,000 skaters (not including the enthusiastic public who also step into the ice to cheer the participants). With all the news focused on economic troubles across Europe these days, the idea of Elfstedentoch was a much welcomed diversion. Hotel rooms in Friesland suddenly became overbooked and overpriced. The Dutch Railways (Nationale Spoor) was offering special tickets to Leeuwarden (the capital of Friesland) with 40% discount. In every nook and corner of the country the talk was only about the Elfstedentoch.
I was one of the millions who waited in bated breath for the press conference of the committee last Wednesday. And I was one of the millions who felt disappointment and sadness afterwards. The committee after consulting all the ice masters (Rayonhoofden) decided against holding the Elfstedentoch due to weak spots in some areas where the ice thickness did not meet the minimum standard. Some places have just around 10-12 cm. which was deemed to be not sufficient enough for a large contingent of skaters. The weather forecast also showed that the worst of freezing is over and the coming days were not going to result in more ice growth. The ever enthusiastic skaters asked that the minimum standard of 15 cm. be lowered (ice skating is already OK at 8 cm.) but the committee was adamant to keep it, justifying that it was already a reduced one from the original 18 cm. in the earlier races in. Again, this shows the Dutch pragmatism who will not be swayed by emotions that were hitting the roof for a go on Elfstedentoch for no one want to have on their plates the blame in case something untoward happens.
Never mind if the Elfstedentoch is not pushing through, the Dutch en masse are still off with their skating shoes and that will stay till the ice start melting. The training and passion start early and that is for my daughter as well who actually surprised us this Friday when on her third time on the ice (2 other times were in the ice skating rink after Christmas), she just took off walking quite some distance without falling. She has conquered her fear and found her balance on the ice. I know that just like with walking and other phases in her life, it will only go from strength to strength from here onwards.
To explain the Dutch passion for ice skating is to take a deeper look at the country’s geography, geology and history. Two-thirds of The Netherlands lie below sea level. I remember that as a child when I was presented this fact, I found it extremely difficult to imagine. How can the country not be overwhelmed by water when the sea water level is higher? In the Philippines, the land is never below sea level but we still get inundated by flood waters on almost a regular basis. Why is it different in The Netherlands. Then came the story about the dike that protect a village against the water and how this one little boy stuck his finger in a small leak in the dike which made him a hero.
The Dutch can be considered as among the most ingenious of people in the world for having mastered living in this condition of most of its land being below sea level. They created dikes and levees. They even reclaimed land from the sea. How did they do it? The Dutch since centuries ago learned to pump the water from low-lying areas with the use of windmills and channel them to a series of canals. The canals then channel the water to the rivers which would eventually empty into the North Sea. That’s the reason why The Netherlands has many canals and how swampy places like Amsterdam for instance, became a habitable place and was used as inspiration by Peter the Great of Russia to create St. Petersburg.
These canals would get frozen in winter especially when the sub-zero freeze goes on for a sustained period of time. I guess it is because of these conditions that the Dutch became very passionate with ice skating and the history goes to as far as the 14th century when they started using wooden platform skates with flat iron bottom runners. The skates were attached to the skater’s shoes with leader straps. Poles were attached to propel the skater. Around 1500, the Dutch added a narrow metal double edge blade, making the poles a thing of the past as the skater could now push and glide with his feet (called the “Dutch Roll”).
While the Elfstedentoch is a “No Go” for now, the hope that it can still push through has not completely waned. THe temperature will warm up beginning end of Sunday till most of the week but by end of next week, there is a second freeze expected. Who knows, it might still happen…let’s keep our fingers crossed for now.
More pictures here: