The orange rocket
Dominant on the global scene since taking his overall Olympic medal haul to seven at Sochi 2014 and becoming one the three most successful male speed skaters in the history of the Games, Sven Kramer is raising the bar even higher for PyeongChang 2018.
Sven Kramer was almost predestined to become a speed skater. He hails from the Dutch city of Heerenveen, one of the cradles of speed skating and a regular port of call for the European Championships, World Championships and ISU World Cup. Moreover, his father was a professional speed skater and encouraged him to follow in his footsteps.
A Dutch junior time-trial runner-up, Kramer turned his back on cycling to pursue his dream of becoming the best speed skater in the world, and served notice of his ability on the ice by winning the national allround title as an 18-year-old in 2004. A year later he won European allround silver on his home rink before setting a new 5,000m world record of 6:08.78 in Salt Lake City that November, a mark he has since improved on several times.
Debut in Turin
Kramer made his first appearance at the Olympic Winter Games at Turin 2006 when he was 20. It was a successful debut, as he won silver in the 5,000m. He then teamed up with the Dutch team for the team pursuit, in which the Dutch were hot favourites. But disaster struck in the semi-final against Italy, when Sven fell, taking one of his team-mates with him. The Dutch then saw off Norway to win the bronze and give Kramer a second Olympic medal.
Then came his first taste of the Olympic Winter Games. “When I went to Turin 2006 at the age of 19, I’d just set my first 5,000m world record and I fancied my chances for gold,” he recalled. “But I wasn’t yet ready, and not as strong as I was in Vancouver or Sochi, and I was beaten by Chad Hedrick of the USA. He had a great race and I won the silver. It was my first year as a pro skater and I learned a lot at my first Olympics.”
Rising to the top
Over the following four years, Kramer went on to become one of the world’s top speed skaters, winning 12 world championship titles and setting several world records, taking his best 5,000m time down to 6:03.32 in Calgary (CAN) in November 2007, which remains unbeaten. Although competing over all the individual distances, it was in the 5,000m and 10,000m that he truly excelled, while he also established himself as a key figure for the Dutch in the team pursuit.
Joy and heartache in Vancouver
Kramer was at the height of his powers as he arrived in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games, and had his sights set on no fewer than three titles. He got off to a flying start, seeing off his compatriot, Jochem Uytdehaage in the 5,000m final, and setting a new world record in the process
He kept the momentum going in the 10,000m final, crossing the line in first place, and was already celebrating a second title when news filtered through that he had been disqualified for choosing the wrong lane just after the midway point of the race. It transpired that Kramer had followed some erroneous instructions from his coach, who had told him to take the inside rather than the outside lane.
“Vancouver was a big disappointment for me, which might sound strange given that I won the 5,000m,” said the Dutch speedster afterwards. “I was expecting something else, though. I was all set to win the 10,000m but we made a huge mistake. We learned from that experience for Sochi.”
A few days later, Sven put the setback behind him to focus on the team pursuit event. The Dutch cruised into the semi-finals, but were then beaten by the USA by just three tenths of a second. It meant that they were once again pitted against the Norwegians for the final spot on the podium, and again came away with the bronze.
Magnificent seven in Sochi
Kramer had to sit out the 2010-2011 season because of a thigh injury, but he came back even stronger, winning the world all-around championships in 2012 and 2013 to take his tally to a record-breaking six titles, and reasserting his supremacy in the 5,000m winning gold in 2012 and 2013, a feat he matched in the team pursuit.
Kramer began his Sochi 2014 campaign by completing a successful defence of his 5,000m title, but had to settle for silver in the 10,000m, in which he was out-raced by fellow Dutchman Jorrit Bergsma. He then rounded off a hugely successful Games by hooking up with Jan Blokhuijsen and Koen Verweij to win the team pursuit, as the Dutch saw off Poland in the final by a margin of over 11 seconds. By the end of Sochi 2014, Kramer’s total Olympic medal count stood at seven, three of them gold, a tally that has only been matched by two other male speed skaters in the history of the Winter Games.
A league of his own
Kramer has stayed at the top of his sport since Sochi, winning world allround titles in Calgary in 2015, Berlin (GER) in 2016 and Hamar (NOR) in 2017, taking his tally of golds in the event to nine.
He has been just as successful at the World Single Distance Championships, where has taken his collection of golds to 19 with a string of 5,000m, 10,000m and team pursuit wins. Titles 18 and 19 came in February 2017 at his favourite individual distances at the Gangneung Oval, the venue for the speed skating events at PyeongChang 2018.
Looking ahead to the Winter Games in the Republic of Korea, he said: “I still have a lot of work to do. Three hundred and sixty-five days is a long way off. My objective is not just the 5,000m, of course, but the 10,000m and the team pursuit and maybe a little bonus with the 1,500m.”
The Dutchman could well enter the record books in PyeongChang as the most decorated Olympic speed skater of all time. Three more golds will take him past the five won by both Finland’s Clas Thunberg and the USA’s Eric Heiden.