In the Netherlands, ice skating is ‘in the DNA’. A warming climate could change that

LEEUWARDEN, Netherlands – On a balmy winter day, Klaas Einte Adema lugged his ice skates from car to rink to continue his training for a race that might never come. The 36-year-old has spent the better part of his adult life doing this – showing up at the rink six days a week, skating laps, honing technique and waiting for the weather to someday cooperate.

“When it’s coming, I’m ready,” he said of the country’s most storied and near-mythical sporting event.

The Elfstedentocht translates to “eleven cities tour”. It’s an ice skating race that measures about 135 miles and takes place on the canals that connect the 11 cities in the Friesland province of the Netherlands. The 110-year-old event is wildly popular – the next race is expected to attract 26,000 participants, two million spectators and 3,000 journalists and will surely draw the attention of nearly every person in the country – largely because of the long wait and grim forecast associated with it.

The race only takes place when conditions allow; when extreme winter bowls over the region, the temperatures drop, and the canals freeze over. But the Netherlands is no longer a romantic wintry wonderland, and there hasn’t been an Elfstedentocht since 1997, marking the longest drought ever between races. Climate change has endangered the race and is slowly dousing hopes across the province.

“The thing is, we don’t know whether it will happen, which is what makes it very big and very special,” said Dutch historian Jurryt van de Vooren, who recently published the book 8,070 Days, marking the long drought since the last race. “A lot of people really think that there will never be another one.”

The threats that climate change poses to the sports world are not theoretical, and they aren’t all looming far down the road. Scientists, sports enthusiasts and event organisers around the globe have already noticed an impact, from changes in the ocean that affect water sports and fishing, to extreme heat that has taken a toll on event scheduling and athlete training, to rising sea levels and intensifying storms that endanger communities and livelihoods.

Leeuwarden is the capital of the province of Friesland. It is the start and finish for the Elfstedentocht
Klaas Einte Adema teaches young children how to maintain their balance during a skating class at the Elfstedenhal ice rink
Winner of the 1997 Elfstedentocht Henk Angenent tends to his horses at his professional stud farm of Dutch Sport horses in Woubrugge, Netherlands
The cards and medals of Sgoerd Boersma, 66, who competed in the Elfstedentocht in 1985, 1986 and 1997

Last year marked Earth’s fourth-warmest global surface temperature since 1880 – the only years that recorded higher temperatures were 2015, 2016 and 2017 – and researchers have found that winters are warming faster than the other seasons. Scientists agree the steady rise has serious consequences for the planet – both short- and long-term – but sports that rely on frigid wintry conditions are already feeling the effects.

Warmer temperatures have caused race organisers in Alaska to alter the Iditarod’s route in recent years, and across both Canada and the United States, there are fewer frozen ponds safe enough for outdoor hockey. The ski and snowboard season starts later, and many resorts increasingly rely on man-made snow. One study estimates the ski season could be 50 per cent shorter by 2050.

“Just look at Lake Tahoe, for example,” Founder and President of nonprofit advocacy group Protect Our Winters said Jeremy Jones. “Scientists will tell you . . . what snow levels will look like in 2050. It sounds really far away, but what they’re really saying is: ‘A kid being born today, their kids represent the last skiers and snowboarders in this region’.”

The impact touches the elite, Olympic-caliber competitor but also the weekend recreational athlete, from snowmobiling in Vermont to snowshoeing in New York to ice fishing in Wisconsin.

In places such as Leeuwarden and the 10 other cities in Friesland, the toll can be seen in daily life. For generations, children have grown up on a pair of thin steel blades. Many still learn to skate, but they do it almost exclusively indoors. Einte Adema brought his 18-month-old daughter to the rink a few weeks back, not long after she had mastered walking.

“Ice skating is so big here, when it gets below zero, you have lots of water and everybody’s crazy,” he says. “Everybody wants to skate. You meet people on the water, on the ice; it’s just beautiful.”

The Elfstedentocht is more than a race, just as ice skating here is more than a sport. It’s woven into the cultural fabric, a time-honoured part of daily life in this region. The canals connect cities and skating outdoors connects people, so when the canals fail to freeze, something is lost.

Einte Adema feels his family’s roots are intertwined with skating and the Elfstedentocht. His father skated in the arduous race twice. His grandfather did it three times. “I hope I can ride one in my lifetime,” Einte Adema said.

But as he waits for an Elfstedentocht that might never come, he also knows his daughter’s childhood will be different than his own. The canals, lakes and dikes won’t turn into impromptu community gatherings. Neighbours won’t gather on the ice and mingle with soup, hot chocolate and warm adult beverages. Not only are the people here fearful of losing a storied race, but they sense a cherished slice of their culture is melting away.

No country is more crazed over speedskating than the Netherlands. The fans show up in droves at the Winter Olympics, the world championships and World Cup events. While there is a soft, rhythmic poetry to the skating on the ice, in the stands the orange-clad Dutch sing and chant, turning placid events into raucous parties.

They usually have much to celebrate: Their Olympic speedskating haul of 121 medals is 37 more than the second-place country. This dominance was born in Friesland, which is located off the North Sea in the northern part of the Netherlands, about a 90-minute drive from Amsterdam. With several lakes, sprawling pastures and towering windmills dotting the landscape, it’s a largely agricultural area with deep roots and provincial pride. It’s the only one of the Netherlands’ 12 provinces with its own language, and it’s the part of the country where skating isn’t a hobby as much as it is a birthright.

“People grow up with it,” Jacob Saakstra explained.

Saakstra, 70, and his brother Rients, 71, were taking a brief break from their training at the indoor Elfstedenhal ice rink. The brothers had reflected on why they skate as much as they’d thought about why they breathe or why they get out of bed each morning.

“It’s more or less in the DNA,” Saakstra said.

Both brothers competed in the three most recent Elfstedentocht races – in 1985, 1986 and 1997. They’ve been training at least twice a week for the past 22 years, waiting for another opportunity.

Skating the event is not really about athletic achievement. (There is no cash prize, and everyone who completes the race receives a small medal, barely the size of a quarter.) It’s paying homage to ancestors, a region and a culture, a tribute to a way of life that no longer exists. Not really, anyway.

Because the Netherlands is at or near sea level, canals have long been a part of city planning, used for water management, irrigation and travel. Before there were cars, the fastest way to travel from city to city was to strap on a pair of skates and traverse the canals.

“We have now cars and trains and bicycles and that kind of stuff. In the early days, we have nothing,” said Saouka de Groot, 65, whose father, Sietze, won the 1942 edition of the Elfstedentocht. “You skate from village to village. That’s how you visit family, friends.”

De Groot skated in a line with the Saakstra brothers that snaked around the rink’s inside lane. They all know their window to complete the 11-city tour is closing. And they’re all hopeful that part of what makes Friesland unique outlasts them and the race.

The Elfstedenhal rink – which features a statue and a tribute to the Elfstedentocht outside its front doors – serves as a community gathering place and is packed every day from 10am until after 10pm. Across Friesland, every community has its own outdoor rink – usually a field with lights that’s flooded with water in November. When it freezes, the entire town shows up on skates. But that’s only amounted to a couple of reliable skating days in recent years, so the indoor rink is the only real option.

On the ice inside the Elfstedenhal, the seasoned skaters and their long strides were joined by a smaller racer with short, choppy steps. Every day, eight-year-old Antje Sytske Ympa makes a beeline from school to the rink. She has a ponytail sticking out of the back of her helmet, but she found her place in the line of older men. Like them, she, too, hopes to skate the 11-city tour someday.

“Outside, when it becomes ice, we can smell it,” said her mother, Berber Ypma Isinglass. “She has it also. That’s how you can tell she’s real Frisian.”

Will there be an Elfstedentocht this year?

As chairman of the Royal Association of the Eleven Frisian Cities, Wiebe Wieling hears that question every single day. “Not only in November,” he said. “It’s also in July.”

For 12 years, Wieling has been in charge of the board that stages the Elfstedentocht. They plan year-round, spending nearly USD400,000 annually on preparations and holding dozens of meetings with municipalities across the region. Equipment is stored in a barn, and procedures and protocols are reviewed, tested and retested.

“Everything has to be organised as if it’s really going to happen,” he said.

And for 12 years, Wieling has reached late February and accepted the disappointment that, yet again, this won’t be the year.

It has never been a sure thing, as the Netherlands have never been reliably frigid. The first formal tour was held in 1909. In the first 50 years, conditions were sufficient to stage an Elfstedentocht 11 times. Since then, there have been only four.

Weather aside, the race requires a minor miracle to pull off. Unlike most major events on the sporting calendar, the Elfstedentocht is spontaneous, the uncertainty adding to the anticipation. Once winter strikes and canals start to freeze, Wieling has an army of volunteers who measure the thickness of the ice across the entire route, from Leeuwarden to Dokkum, then back to Leeuwarden for the finish. Once the ice safely measures 15 centimetres the entire way, skaters are formally put on notice, and 48 hours later the Elfstedentocht is held.

The elite skaters are sent out first, followed by thousands of others who just hope to complete the race. While the winner might finish in six hours, all finishers must complete the race by midnight, when the Elfstedentocht concludes.

Along the way, the race provides a quaint tour of Dutch winter, taking skaters past acres of frosty pastures, herds of huddled sheep and windmills, both traditional and modern. Family, friends and supporters flood into the 11 towns; the population of the region is expected to more than triple in size on raceday.

Depending on conditions, Wieling estimates that one-third of the entrants won’t finish, about 100 will be hospitalised, and one or two could even die. While most competitors are Dutch, skaters come from all over. In 1997, Jeroen van der Veer, a former Royal Dutch Shell chief executive who now heads up the electronics giant Philips, flew overnight from Houston to do the tour between meetings on his calendar. And in 1986, the Dutch King Willem-Alexander, then the nation’s 18-year-old crown prince, completed the race under a pseudonym. Elite skaters have said they’ll skip the world championships or even the Olympics if the Elfstedentocht comes along.

But no one knows when – or if – that might happen, and the science only gives them more reason to worry. In the past century, the average annual temperature in the Netherlands has increased by about 3.5 degrees, according to Researcher and Polar Meteorologist at Utrecht University Peter Kuipers Munneke. He said in recent decades winters have warmed more than the other seasons, thanks in part to westerly winds coming over the North Sea, where the water temperature has warmed over the past half-century. Swans migrate here and tulips poke out of the ground late in the season.

“The funny thing about Dutch winters is we have a picture of snow and ice skating. That’s our mental picture of the winter,” he said. “The truth is, it’s grey and dreary.”

While winter certainly isn’t disappearing entirely, in many places extreme conditions are becoming less frequent. A 2009 study examined statistics from the National Climatic Data Centre and found that a half-century ago the United States saw about the same number of days with record high temperatures as record lows. Today there are twice as many record highs, and the study suggests the trend will continue, a ratio of 20 to one by 2050 and roughly 50 to one by the end of the century.

Dutch scientists recently sought to find out the likelihood that conditions will ever allow another Elfstedentocht to take place. Researcher at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, who specialises in climate modelling, said that reaching the mandated six inches of ice typically requires two weeks of very cold weather – the type of extreme winters that are increasingly rare in the Netherlands.

A century ago, the probability of such conditions was roughly one in five. Today its one in 12 – an eight per cent chance in any given year – but Van Oldenborgh warns they’re not getting better. He said if climate change continues unabated – if greenhouse gas emissions grow unchecked – there might be only one or two opportunities for an Elfstedentocht by 2050, and perhaps none afterward for a long time.

“Everybody here would call a cold winter a good winter and a mild winter a bad winter,” he said. “In many other countries, I think it’s the opposite.”

Wieling is certain that climate change is making it increasingly difficult to stage his event. He has thought down the road about whether it’s worth all the time and effort each year, only to have the sun poke out and turn his race route into a long, winding swimming pool.

“We haven’t reached that point yet. We have 33,000 people that expect us to be ready if there is a chance,” he said. “So how can we say we don’t do it anymore? How can we say that?”

In the Netherlands, those who compete in the Olympics might be feted as a champion, but those who’ve won the Elfstedentocht become legends. Evert van Benthem won the race in 1985 and 1986. The attention was relentless, and he eventually moved to Canada, where he could live a quieter life.

There’s a bridge just outside of Leeuwarden that has been turned into a monument, decorated with a tile mosaic that features almost every man and woman who has completed the 11-city tour.

One side of the bridge has the words It Sil Heve – Frisian for “It Will Happen.”

On a recent day, 79-year-old Bert Reinders brought his daughter along to show off the small photograph of him competing in the 1997 race.

“He told me every year it gets more heroic,” Tine Reinders said.

“It’s true,” the father said with a chuckle.

“Every day there are less people who can say they did it,” the daughter said.

A Brussels sprouts farmer named Henk Angenent won the 1997 event and is therefore the reigning champion. As he neared the finish line on that cold February day, he briefly gave thought to how his quiet life was about to change. Sure enough, two decades later, he’s still asked about his historic win every day. “Some days three times,” he said.

He raises horses now but laces his skates once a week in anticipation of another Elfstedentocht. At 51, his competitive racing days are behind him, but he’d like to complete the tour at least once more.

Angenent knows the odds aren’t good. He’s fearful his headstone will someday proclaim him the final Elfstedentocht winner. He wants another race, another champion, another Dutch winter that can remind everyone once more of what’s possible and what used to be.

“I hope he comes,” Angenent said. “Nobody knows when. But I hope he comes.” – Text and Photos by The Washington Post