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On the oval at the Adler Arena, during the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, the Dutch speed-skating squad achieved unprecedented success as they collected 23 medals, eight titles and four clean sweeps. Every single speed skating podium featured at least one Dutch athlete, and their utter dominance was underlined by imperious victories in both the men's and women's pursuit.
Sven Kramer – by now already a four-time Olympic medallist (5,000m gold at Vancouver 2010, 5,000m silver at Turin 2006 and team pursuit bronze in both 2006 and 2010) – played his part in his nation's success by retaining his 5,000m title, winning the men’s team pursuit alongside Koen Verweij and Jan Blokhuijsen, and taking silver in the 10,000m behind compatriot Jorrit Bergsma.
The 10,000m gold has somehow managed to elude him so far. The Heerenveen-born skater may be a multiple world champion over this distance, but all of his past attempts on the Olympic stage have fallen short. In 2010 at the Richmond Olympic Oval in Vancouver, he finished first by a comfortable four-second margin ahead of Lee Seung-hoon (KOR), and thought he had secured a second gold medal of his Games.
However, he was to be sorely disappointed a few minutes later, when he was disqualified for incorrectly changing lanes midway through the race; erroneous instructions from his coach led to him taking the inside lane instead of the outside. “Vancouver was a big disappointment for me,” he recalls. “That maybe sounds a little strange, because I won gold in the 5,000m, but I had expected more! I’d gone there to win the 10,000m but we made a big mistake.”
He went in search of the “10k” title again at Sochi 2014, but this time compatriot Jorrit Bergsma beat him by 4.57 seconds. The pair were joined on the podium by Bob de Jong to complete a Dutch clean sweep.
“I won't give up,” he said in 2017. “I'm doing it for the public and for myself. I know better than anyone how ambitious it sounds, but I can't aim for anything less. I have to do it. I could tone it down, temper expectations, but that would be mission impossible anyway.
“Obviously the 10,000m is the big one, but I also want to defend my 5,000m title, retain the team pursuit title, and maybe do the 1,500m and mass start races too. That's quite a schedule, but I'll see how I feel at the time and decide which races I take part in.” But Kramer's clear objective in PyeongChang is at least three gold medals: “Coming home with those would be a success. It's an ambitious target, but a realistic one.”
Kramer is the son of a professional speed skater and was born in one of the sport's hotbeds. There is footage of an 11-year-old Sven saying: “I want to become the best ice-skater in the world”, and he is now third on the all-time Olympic list with seven medals, including three golds.
Realising his ambition of three golds in the Republic of Korea would see him move out in front on his own, ahead of Finland's Clas Thunberg and the USA's Eric Heiden, each of whom have five titles. Over the last 11 years, Kramer has amassed 13 individual titles and 19 gold medals overall from the World Single Distances Championships – eight at 5,000m, five at 10,000m and six in the team pursuit; he is also a nine-time World Allround champion, itself a record.
Since Sochi, the Dutchman has been in irrepressible form. He has won every World Allround Championship title in this Olympic cycle, in Calgary (CAN) in 2015, Berlin (GER) in 2016 and Hamar (NOR) in 2017. His 18th and 19th Single Distances golds came in his two favoured events at the 2017 World Championships, held on the Gangneung Oval, which will serve as the venue for the speed skating events at PyeongChang 2018. But before he gets there, he says, “there's still a lot of work to be done”.
Kramer holds the world records for the 5,000m (6:03.32 set in 2007) and the team pursuit (1:17.75 alongside Koen Verweij and Jan Blokhuijsen, set in 2013), and made a strong start to the 2017-2018 international season at the opening event in Inzell (GER) in early October. He won the 3,000m and 5,000m races – each time breaking the track record – just a month before the first round of the ISU World Cup, which took place in his hometown of Heereneven. When his favourite event was held on the Dutch rink on 12 November, he won it. He followed this with a World Cup victory in the 10,000m at Stavanger (Norway); and then a further win over 5,000m in Calgary in December. As a result, Sven Kramer ended 2017 unbeaten over either of the two distances.
The 31-year-old was once quoted as saying that “being happy with a silver medal doesn't sit right with my view of elite sport. That's not why I train, that's not why I race; I race to win.” His incredible medal tally would appear to confirm that, and PyeongChang 2018 could see him consecrated as Olympic speed skating’s most prolific winner.