SOCHI, RUSSIA – They stepped onto the podium, one after another, teammates and friends, all decked out in the same uniform.
And if there had been room for one more, she would’ve been wearing orange, too.
The Dutch, you see, are just racing against themselves at the Olympic speedskating oval.
“They’re on fire right now,” said U.S. coach Ryan Shimabukuro. “They’ve got all the momentum going in their direction.”
The Netherlands has long been a speedskating powerhouse, but the nation of 17 million has never been on a roll like this.
No one has.
All by themselves, the Dutch skaters have pushed their country to the top of the medals table at the Sochi Games. The long-track team already has a record 16 medals, the short trackers have chipped in with one, for a total that left the Netherlands — who haven’t won a medal in any other sport — one ahead of the mighty United States and host Russia.
“Our target for the whole team was nine medals for all sports,” speedskater Merrit Leenstra said. “This is the best we have ever done in the Winter Olympics.”
Just how dominant have the Dutch been at Adler Arena?
They have swept the medals in three of the first eight events, doing it again Sunday in the women’s 1,500 meters. Jorien ter Mors claimed the gold with the second-fastest time ever at sea level, giving her a shot at becoming the first skater to win Olympic medals in long and short track. Ireen Wust sounded disappointed with her silver, and Lotte van Beek claimed the bronze by knocking Leenstra out of the third spot in the very last pairing.
It was the first time in Olympic history that one country took the top four spots in a speedskating event.
“Unfortunately, there are only three spots on the podium,” Leenstra said. “But still I would rather have Dutch girls in front of me than others.”
No worries there.
Coming into Sochi, there had only been six medal sweeps in all of Olympic speedskating history, going back to the very first Winter Games at Chamonix in 1924. There have been none since 1998.
Now, the Dutch seem a bit disappointed when another country slips onto the podium. They don’t intend to let up now.
“I will celebrate,” Ter Mors said, “but it’s not going to be a big party, because there is still competition to come.”
The Netherlands has claimed five golds already, and will be heavy favorite in three of the last four events — the men’s 10,000 (where another sweep seems likely), plus the team pursuits for men and women. Throw in another likely medal in the women’s 5,000, and it’s easy to envision the Dutch pushing their total to at least 20 and perhaps as high as 22.
The previous record for speedskating medals at one games was 13 by the East Germans in 1988.
The only mark left to take down is most golds — six for the Soviet speedskaters at the 1960 Squaw Valley Games.
It’s as good as gone.
In Sochi, orange is the new gold.
The Dutch gave a glimpse of what the other countries were in for in the very first event — Sven Kramer, Jan Blokhuijsen and Jorrit Bergsma swept the top three spots in the men’s 5,000.
The next day, Wust took gold in the women’s 3,000.
But the most telling event came on Day 3 at the oval. The Dutch have never been especially great sprinters, but twin brothers Michel and Ronald Mulder led another hoarding of the podium in the men’s 500; Michel took gold, Jan Smeekens grabbed the silver and Ronald claimed bronze.
“That’s the big thing about the Olympic games,” Shimabukuro said. “When you get on a roll, it’s infectious.”
The Dutch steamroller has only made the shortcomings of other nations more pronounced, especially the Americans.
Led by Shani Davis, Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe, the U.S. posted some impressive results on the World Cup circuit and rolled into Russia boldly predicting its new high-tech suits might give it a shot at equaling or surpassing its greatest haul at an Olympics, the eight medals won on home ice in both 1980 and 2002.
But the new suits turned out to be a bust and were dumped midway through the Olympics. There were also questions about the decision to do high-altitude training prior to an Olympics at sea level, along with some serious soul searching about whether the Americans got complacent after their World Cup success.
No U.S. skater has finished higher than seventh in Sochi, setting up the team for its first medal shutout since 1984.
The Dutch, on the other hand, clearly patterned their training with an eye toward being at their best in Sochi.
“They’re doing something right,” Bowe said. “They’ve had an awesome competition.”