Sochi, Feb 21: The International Skating Union (ISU) are scratching their heads as a rising number of countries have been losing interest in speed skating, the oldest Winter Olympic sport which was dominated by the Dutch here.
The Netherlands have made four medal sweeps in 10 individual events here and are favourites to win the two team pursuits Saturday. By now, the country has seized six golds, seven silvers and eight bronzes from the sport, reports Xinhua.
Dutch team official John Van Vliet said their success came “a little unexpected but reasonable”.
“We had hoped to have as many medals as in Nagano, not in these numbers,” Van Vliet said. The Netherlands collected 11 medals from 1998 Nagano Games which has been their record until now.
“In the Netherlands, speed skating is even more popular than football in winter. When there is natural ice, we have many races everyday. When the Olympics were held in Sapporo, many people set their alarm clocks and got up at 4 a.m. to watch the competition,” he said.
Forty-two years after the Sapporo Games, Van Vliet still feels his country’s undiminished love for the sport.
“My kids told me that schools let the children go earlier so they can watch the competition on TV. I heard that viewing figures for the Olympics are unbelievable. About 30 percent of the people watched the competition,” he said.
As the Netherlands are all fired up for speed skating, other traditional powers are less eager to develop the sport.
Germany, the United States and Canada all reaped golds from the 2010 Vancouver Games while Japan had several silvers and bronzes from both men and women’s competition. Not this time.
German coach Thomas Schubert said the sport is losing fans in these countries.
“There are fewer and fewer viewers in Germany. The same problems exist in US and Japan. It’s not appealing anymore,” he said.
American skater Maria Lamb said the tangled-up management was more at the core of the problem rather than smaller fan base. The US, which won a gold, two silvers and a bronze in Vancouver, are in danger of repeating their worst Olympic speed skating performance since 1984 Sarajevo Olympics when they finished without a medal.
“Over the last few years, a few of us have raced better in spite of the organisation rather than because of it. The organisation could have done a lot of things differently. We have lost a lot of staff and have had to deal with a huge amount of controversy. That definitely affects you,” said Lamb, who finished 16th in Wednesday’s 5,000m.
The US team started here with a new suit but changed back to the old World Cup suit after disappointing results.
“The skin suit issue is honestly just the tip of the iceberg. With the team, we were all capable of more than we’ve shown here. I’ve watched them be defeated by some of the leadership in the organisation and it’s heartbreaking for me,” Lamb said.
When some regretted their under-performance here, some are worried about the sport’s future in their country.
Three-time Olympic champion Martina Sablikova found little progress even if she has already brought three golds, a silver and a bronze from two Olympics to the Czech Republic.
“After Vancouver, nothing happened. We don’t have new ice rinks or nothing. It’s very sad. I’m sad for the situation but I have good sponsors without whom I can’t do this sport. Now maybe that might change but we will have to wait. We have good juniors and may be if they work hard they will be good. But without an ice rink, it will be hard,” said Sablikova, after defending the 5,000m title.
ISU is also worried with its president Ottovio Cinquanta saying he wants to change speed skating into a more appealing sport, considering to bring mass start and mixed team pursuit into future competitions.
Mass starts would add intrigue, team tactics and a direct confrontation of skating styles and could bring some elements of crash and tumble of the short track.