Monday, February 17, 2014

Dutch Skiing in the New York Times

Ski slope in Rastkogel/ Petr Novák, Wikipedia
While the Olympic Games continue, and I already mentioned in a previous post the international media attention for the Dutch speed skating success, now a  quite an unlikely op-ed article was published in The New York Times,  "Why the Dutch Hit the Slopes" by Eric Weinberger.

Unlikely, because it refers to the Dutch increased love for skiing, in a country which is known for its flatness, and also for its successes in speed skating not downhill skiing:

"...Still, nothing stops Dutch people from skiing. In 2012, while the country was still struggling through recession, nearly one million (out of a population of almost 17 million) traveled to the Alps. They descend en masse on Alpine resorts, most of them Austrian; some fly or travel by train, but most drive. The beginning of the February week that the Dutch schools are off is known for some of the longest traffic jams in Europe........

......And yet in the 2014 Olympics, for the first time, a Dutch person — Nicolien Sauerbreij, from the town of De Hoef, a few feet below sea level — will be defending her title as champion in a downhill event, having won gold in the parallel giant slalom snowboarding event in 2010."

Weinberger then ends his article by stating that globalization and improved travel will enable athletes from different countries to excel in sports which they traditionally would never have been able to participate in, let alone win:

"Improved travel, coaching and sponsorships have produced, in the 21st century, that remarkable thing, a Dutch snowboarding champion. Scandinavians and alpine countries and North Americans still dominate, but one no longer has to be born in a wintry climate to compete. In the next decades there will, undoubtedly, be a South African medalist in skiing, or a medal-winning Brazilian snowboarder."

This is a nicely written article, but I wonder what its predictive value is. Skiing has become a major pass-time and sport for Dutch tourists, and Nicolien Sauerbreij may inspire more Dutch skiing and snowboarding talent to compete internationally. But it remains to be seen how one can compete consistently with athletes who grow up in a culture and environment that is soaked in a sports tradition. Case in point are the Dutch Olympic speed skaters, who face limited competition from other countries struggling to replicate the Dutch skating success, or the famous Jamaican bobsled team, which first appeared in the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988, failed to qualify since the 2002 Olympics, and now reached Sochi where they slid into last place after the first three heats. The stories of the Jamaicans as well as Sauerbreij are inspiring, and maybe more "exotic" athletes than in the past will start competing in the Winter Olympics, but it's doubtful that many of them will win.

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