SOCHI, RUSSIA – The final day of speedskating at the Sochi Olympics was nothing more than a victory lap for the mighty Dutch.
The Netherlands capped its dominant performance with two more gold medals Saturday in team pursuit, bringing the nation’s haul to a staggering eight golds and 23 medals overall.
“We simply are the best team,” Jan Blokhuijsen said, “so it’s no surprise.”
The Dutch men cruised through the finals, pulling away from South Korea to win gold with an Olympic record time of 3 minutes, 37.71 seconds. Blokhuijsen, Sven Kramer and Koen Verweij raised their clasped hands in triumph, taking the country’s first gold ever in pursuit and making up for heavily favored teams that flopped in both 2006 and 2010.
“In Vancouver things went bad, so tension was high coming into the race,” Kramer said. “We knew how to do this, and also how tough this is.”
Then, in the only imaginable way for this competition to end, the women crushed Japan by nearly 12 seconds in the semifinals and blew away Poland with their third Olympic record time in three races. Ireen Wust, Jorien ter Mors and Marrit Leenstra were like a runaway train, leading by more than a second and a half after the first half-lap and steadily building the advantage from there, winning by more than 7 seconds in 2:58.05.
Wust became the first athlete at these Winter Games with five medals — two golds and three silvers.
“It has yet to sink in,” Wust said. “I still don’t realize what an exceptional performance I have achieved here.”
The Netherlands turned in a performance that may never be duplicated, taking nearly twice as many medals at the oval as every other nation combined. While former powerhouses such as Norway, Germany and the United States didn’t win even a single medal in Sochi, the team in orange turned this into essentially the Dutch trials.
The eight golds in 12 events broke the previous record of six golds by the Soviet speedskaters at the 1960 Winter Games. The total medals blew away the old mark of 13 by the East Germans at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
The only consolation for everyone else in team pursuit: There was no way for the Dutch to hoard all the medals, as they did in four individual events.
South Korea seemed more than thrilled with its silver on the men’s side, with Poland rallying to beat Canada for the bronze.
“We knew that the Dutch would be champion, but we still had to fight for a result,” South Korea’s Lee Seung-hoon said.
The South Koreans actually led early in the race and were still just 0.38 behind at the midway point. But the Dutch were simply too deep and too strong, steadily pulling away to win by a comfortable 3.14. Their average margin over three races was 7.67 — essentially the length of a straightaway.
“The Koreans really got a fast start, but our strength is that all of three are powerful,” Blokhuijsen said.
The Dutch men were supposed to win gold when team pursuit made its debut at the Turin Games in 2006, but Kramer crashed in the semifinals by carelessly catching his skate on a lane marker and bronze was the best they could do.
Four years ago, the Netherlands was again a big favorite, but the team barely bothered to practice for the event — and it cost them another shot at gold. A mistake in tactics left one of the three skaters far behind, and the Dutch were upset by the U.S. in the semifinals. Again, they settled for bronze.
“It took us three Olympic games, but we finally we have it,” Kramer said. “I am leaving with two golds and one silver. There are a lot of people who leave with a lot less.”
Not even a bit of discord within the team could detail the Dutch. Jorrit Bergsma, who upset Kramer to win the 10,000-meter gold and was an alternate for the pursuit, boycotted the second day of the event because the team decided not to use him in any of the three rounds. Therefore, he did not win a medal.
The Dutch used all four of their available female skaters. Lotte van Beek, who raced with Wust and Ter Mors in the quarterfinals Friday, joined her teammates on the medal podium.
At the last two Olympics, the women were beaten in the quarterfinals by eventual champion Germany. The Dutch didn’t have to worry about the two-time gold medalists this time — Germany didn’t even qualify for the pursuit — and they cruised to three dominating victories by an average of 7.62 seconds, taking the Olympic record lower each time.
Poland assured itself of another medal in the women’s event by beating Russia in the semifinals. But there was no stopping the Dutch, so silver was really the best anyone could do. The bronze went to Russia, which defeated Japan in the third-place race, pumping up the home crowd in really the only dramatic moment of the day.
Other than that, it was a Dutch party all the way.
During the last of the victory ceremonies, a most appropriate tune blared from the speakers at Adler Arena, belted out by Tina Turner.
“Simply the best. Better than all the rest.”