GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - Four years ago, the Netherlands dominated the speed skating events to such an extent - winning 23 of 36 medals at the Sochi Olympics - that the International Skating Union (ISU) changed the sport’s rules in an attempt to level the playing field.
So much for the best laid plans.
On Saturday, the Dutch kicked off their campaign at the Winter Olympics with a clean sweep in the women’s 3,000 meters as the relatively unknown Carlijn Achtereekte pipped defending champion Ireen Wust by the narrowest of margins to win gold.
Antoinette de Jong, who at 22 is being hailed in the Netherlands as someone destined for greatness, proved that the future of Dutch skating is secure by winning bronze in her first event at her first Olympics.
“I loved it,” said De Jong, who is also part of the Dutch team pursuit squad. “I skated a good race, but the others are really good and I‘m happy with the Dutch sweep.”
Because of the ISU’s rule changes, no country can enter more than three athletes in most speed skating events.
That number falls to two per country for the men’s 10,000m and the women’s 5,000m races, a move aimed at increasing competition and preventing one nation from sweeping the podium, as the Netherlands did in four events in Sochi.
Evidently, however, the restrictions are not enough to put a damper on the Dutch party in South Korea.
Roared on by their boisterous fans, the Dutch skaters made short work of their opponents and although it is still early days at the Gangneung Oval, the signs are looking ominous for the competition.
The Netherlands landed in Pyeongchang with a relatively modest target of 12 medals in speed skating given the depth of talent in their team.
One race into the Games, a quarter of that target has been reached, and freshly minted 3,000m champion Achtereekte’s thoughts have turned to how she will celebrate.
“It’s incredible that three of the girls ended on the podium,” she said.
“Everyday my roommate (speed skater Marrit Leenstra) has been making jokes about the McFlurry of McDonald’s because I like it so much. You can’t eat it before your competition but I said to her if I skate good then I‘m going to eat a McFlurry.”
Editing by Ed Osmond