Climate change will also transform the world of sports. For example, Holland may have to consider moving its beloved skating race to the Erie Canal. By Bill Vaughn
RISING SEAS will create a bonanza for Americans who love outdoor sports. This exciting development, however, is being drowned out by the international frenzy of hand wringing over the greenhouse effect.
Well, yes, the wash of tides every winter across St. Mark’s Square in Venice is a reminder that despite plans for inflatable watergates in the lagoon and a controversial engineering scheme designed to elevate the land by pumping brine into the soil, the City of Falling Angels will probably be consumed by the Adriatic this century.
As polar ice melts, swelling oceans will also drive to higher ground millions of people in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and other poor, low countries. And then there are all those islands fated to look like the set of Waterworld. The United Nations recently ruled that “environmental refugees” flooding from these patches of former real estate will qualify for asylum just like people displaced by war or political oppression. New Zealand has pledged to accept all 10,500 residents of Tuvalu, a string of nine Pacific islets north of Figi that are expected to disappear under the waves by 2050.
Still, think of the surfing.
Not to mention the fishing.
And consider that although shorter winters may force Americans farther north or higher up in our pursuit of righteous powder, global warming will also bring more tennis, golf, softball, soccer and watersport. Not only that, the recreational losses of other countries could become America’s gains.
One event that comes to mind is Holland’s beloved skating race, the Elfstedentocht, the Eleven Cities Tour. Starting and finishing in Leeuwarden, skaters zip along a 125-mile circuit down frozen canals, lakes and streams that link this northern provincial capital of 92,000 to ten smaller burgs in Friesland, a rural backwater on the North Sea that has its own language, breed of horse, and attitude—the surliness of Friesians is legendary.
Speeds during the Elf surpass 25 miles an hour. Foreign skaters yearn to enter this cross between the Boston Marathon and the Iditarod, but the Dutch have capped the field of entrants at 16,000, almost all of whom are citizens of Holland. There are two divisions—first, some 300 competitive, mostly professional skaters. The rest of the field are weekend warriors entered in the recreational tour. Some of the contestants in Elf Lite are chosen by lottery, so great is the demand to compete. Many skaters don’t complete the course by the midnight deadline, and are taken off the ice by the police if they won’t get off themselves. But for those brave hearts who succeed the glory is great. For the rest of their lives they can prove their grit by showing around the "Elfstedentocht Cross,” awarded for finishing the race.
The Elfstedentocht is a far greater spectacle in the Netherlands than the Super Bowl is in the U.S. As winter temperatures drop Holland holds its breath, waiting for race organizers to declare the ice thick enough. When the announcement finally comes—a robust “It giet oan!” (No, it doesn’t mean Get it on!, but rather Let the tour begin!)—this entire country of 16 million busy beavers shuts down for the party.
The drama begins before dawn, as the first groups of contestants gather under television lights outside Friesian Hall in Leeuwarden, which coincidentally is the hometown of notorious WWI spy Mata Hari. At the starter’s signal the professional skaters take off first, sprinting a mile in shoes through the streets, their skates in hand. These are not your normal skates. Their blades are two-feet long and arced at the prows—the better to ride up over cracks and zits in the ice.
At the first canal the racers sit down to skate up. Then they race south from the city on the River Swette. Following them every 15 minutes in groups of a thousand are the weekend warriors. In the winter gloom farmers drive out on their tractors and aim their headlights at the ice.
Racers are required to stop at every town and at checkpoints in between to get an official stamp on their race card. This practice prevents the sort of cheating that allowed Rosie Ruiz to win the 1979 New York marathon by riding the subway, or Abbes Tehami to win the 1991 Brussels marathon by having his coach start the race for him (the pair was found out by spectators who noticed the Tehami who finished the race didn’t have a mustache like the Tehami who started it.)
The race card was the brainchild of Dutch sportswriter Willem “Pim” Mulier, who decided during the numbingly cold winter of 1890, like a lot of people, to skate around Friesland, a Dutch tradition stretching back centuries. Mulier’s innovation was to carry along a little red notebook which he presented to randomly selected denizens of each town, asking them to write down their names and the time of day. Mulier completed the circuit from Leeuwarden and back again in just under 13 hours. In 1908 the Elfstedentocht’s governing board was formed. Its first officially sanctioned race was staged in 1909.
The men’s title is held by is Henk Angenent, who finished the most recent Elf a mere meter ahead of his nearest rival in a time of 6 hours, 49 minutes, 18 seconds (two minutes off the record set in 1986). Klasina Seinstra is the reigning women’s champ. Although Angenet, 38, lives in Woubrugge, the tiny hicksville where he was born, and spends most of his time on his farm milking cows, he’s an Olympic-caliber speed skater. In March of 2004 he broke the world’s record for covering the longest distance in an hour, zipping across almost 26 miles of ice.
Before the start of the Elfstedentocht trains run day and night to Friesland packed with contestants and spectators. During the last race 600,000 fans lined the route and millions of people followed it on their radios and teedles.
World-class boozers who can hold their own against any beer-sodden Aussie or whiskey-soaked Mick, the Dutch make American tailgaters look like bleary Omaha housewives watching Days of Our Lives with a demitasse of sherry. This is, after all, the country that invented gin, and is fond of a Flemish vodka called Black Death.
And there’s plenty of food along the route to keep people fueled for the celebration. Because Dutch cuisine is a heavy fare designed to keep farmers going from dawn to dusk it’s perfect for revelers hanging out all day in sub-freezing temperatures and cold gusts from the North Sea. There’s warmeworst (sausage), zurrkool (sauerkraut), and gevulde koek (butter cookies). And, of course, that unavoidable staple of the Netherlands, a pea soup called erwtensoep in Dutch and snert in Friesian, is available at every canal-side koek en zopie, or refreshment stand.
Snert causes wild flatulence in almost everyone who eats it, and so a billboard was erected during the most recent Elf advising racers that “after a cup of snert you’ll break wind so explosively that before you know it you’ll be on the Bonkefeart” (the canal that crosses the finish line). Those Dutch, what cut-ups!
For the towns of Friesland, old villages with phlegm-clearing Dutch
names such as Sloten, sneek, Workum, Bolsward, and Dokkum, the
race is not only a great party and a riveting spectacle, it’s an economic
The only problem with the Elfstedentocht is that it almost never
happens. Because of thin ice or no ice at all it’s been staged only 15
times in the last 97 years. The most recent race was held on Jan. 4, in 1997, more than a decade ago.
Based on worldwide patterns of rising temperatures that began with the
Industrial Revolution, accelerated through the 20th Century and spiked
markedly over the last decade, there’s no reason to believe that
Elf is coming anytime soon.
Sensing the end, a generation ago the Dutch started looking abroad for alternatives. In 1974 a sort of Elfstedentocht was held in Lillehammer, Norway. In 1976 a 200-kilometer marathon was staged in Lahti, Finland, where it stayed for a couple of years before being moved to Vermont and then Ottowa. In 1986 it was held in Poland and in 2000, Akan, Japan. In 2003 the Sylvan Lake Ice Marathon was staged near Calgary, Alberta, in temperatures of twenty below zero. Just like the Elfstedentocht there was a serious competitive speed race and a more relaxed recreational event. Organizers were buoyant because the weekend had a “Dutch” atmosphere, resplendent with pea soup, a guy wearing wooden shoes, and a replica of the famous bridge across the ice at the little Friesian burg of Bartleheim. How pathetic is that?
The loss of the Elfstedentocht is “very sad for Holland,” said Brigitta Kroon-Fiorita, a public relations spokesperson for the Netherlands Board of Tourism in New York City. “Ice skating is a big part of who we are.”
The love affair between the Dutch and their skates goes back to at least the Middle Ages. Isolated hayseeds looked forward to winter because, in a monotonously flat country whose few roads were rutted and tortuous, skating became a cheap, speedy and fun way to visit friends and relatives. The first skates were shanks and ribs from cattle, drilled with holes and strapped to the feet. The next innovation was a block of wood fitted with a metal strip. This contraption evolved into steel blades fixed to curled wooden shoes. Like all modes of transportation skating developed into a sport, as the lords of the manors sponsored competitions on royal ice. The first skating organization was established in Dokkum in 1840.
From the first Winter Olympics, held in Chamonix, France, in 1924, the Netherlands has been a major power in international speed skating. Eight Dutch skaters climbed the podium at the 2002 Salt Lake Games, increasing Holland’s cumulative medal tally in the Olympic sport to 66, ranked second only to Norway’s 79 medals. A contingent of Dutch fans in Salt Lake, wearing orange and shrieking like Beatles fans, waved signs that said “If it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much.” And “The UnDutchables.”
In Holland no citizen is more than a half-hour by car from an indoor skating rink. When you ask Dutch school kids about their favorite sport speed skating almost always ranks number one.
An immodest proposal
However, it’s time for the Dutch to face reality and give the Elfstedentocht a permanent new home. But where? To approximate the Elf Experience you need cold winters, a functional society that values winter sports (the first part of this requirement rules out Russia and the Ukraine), and a large population situated near the venue in order to give the race the party buzz that makes it special. Plus, it has to be close enough to Holland to allow Dutch fans and competitors a chance to attend in droves.
There are plenty of climates cold enough for this sort of herd skating. And there are plenty of heavily populated places with tons of winter sports enthusiasts.
But there’s only one locale in the world that’s the perfect combination of all these factors, only a chartered puddle jump from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. And it even shares an intimate history with Holland.
That’s the Erie Canal.
In fact, the Erie Canal was built on Dutch soil. That is to say, in 1813, four years
before the first day of principal digging on “Clinton’s Folly,” which was named
for New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, Dutch speculators from the six
Amsterdam banks that owned the Holland Land Company donated more than
100,000 acres held by the consortium to New York state in an area of what
would become the eastern route of the Canal (see sidebar).
This gift was
entirely self-serving—the Dutch saw that the Canal might bring a torrent of
settlers into what was then a frontier. And they were right. The real estate
sold to people hungry for a new start was priced many times what the
consortium paid for it. In the process, Rochester became a boom town. And
New York City became a
world-class city. Without the flow of commerce that
opened to the
Great Lakes the Big Apple wouldn’t be anything more
than just another port
on the eastern seaboard, like Baltimore, say, only without
the yummy crabs.
The year 2005 was the hottest year on record since the late 1890s, and some climatologists predict that 2007 will be even warmer. Still, in December 2005 the low
temperatures on 22 consecutive days around the
Pittsford, New York, section
of the Erie Canal didn’t rise above freezing. And several
of these lows were in the
single digits. Compare this fine
record of frigidity to that
of Holland, where during the winter of 2005-2006 a
32° F has been recorded on
lowest being only 29 degrees,
forge the six inches of ice eeded
The “Big Ditch” stretches from Tonawanda and Buffalo on
the Niagara River 338 miles west to Waterford and Troy
on the Hudson River. In its original incarnation, it was
forty feet wide and four feet deep. Reconstructed three
times, in 1862, 1895 and 1918, the canal was deepened
to fourteen feet, and in places rerouted into rivers
lakes, which were dredged when ecessary to
accommodate heavier boats. Because the difference in
elevation between the Hudson and Lake Erie is 568 feet
there are 57 locks to raise and lower mariners from one
level to another. These days the Erie is part of the New
York Canal System, which includes three ther shorter
More than 50,000 people once depended on the Erie
Canal for their bread. There were barge orkers, dock
workers, crews of passenger boats, and laborers called“hoggies,” who walked long the towpaths leading the
mules that pulled the barges. After decades of neglect
the canal is booming again. But this time the business is about fun. Although the Erie still transports ome commerce the water is brimming with canoes, sailboats, power boats, kayaks and the kind of leasure barges that tour around the rivers and canals of Europe.
The season runs from early ay to early November, when the man-made sections of the waterway are drained.
In 2002 Governor George Pataki released $35 million to finish the construction of an asphalt ribbon along the former towpaths to accommodate inline skating, hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling (although along some sections of the trail motorized vehicles are not allowed). When it’s finished the Erie Canalway Trail will be the longest continuous recreational trail in the U.S.
For the Erie Canal to accommodate the Elfstedentocht several things will have to happen. First, a route must be chosen. This will probably involve linking parts of the old, abandoned and overgrown sections of Clinton’s Ditch to lengths of what was called the Barge Canal with the current incarnation of this inland waterway. One thought: The locks could serve as checkpoints for the signing of race cards, where skaters
will have to pause anyway to ascend or descend. Next,
the draining of the canal for the winter obviously must
cease. The water level could be lowered, however, to
maybe the original four feet of depth so even if there
ice in places you couldn’t drown, unless you
Finally, there are some legal hurdles to clear. According to Jennifer Meicht, who handles media relations for the
New York State Canal Corporation, making the canal a
winter playground involves liability issues, including the
danger of people tumbling over the stone walls of the
locks onto something that is no longer nice soft water.
Recently, she said, discussions with some communities
about the use of the canal for skating in the winter has
begun. Two of these towns, she said, are Fairport and
Pittsford near Rochester.
But these are not major challenges, especially compared
to the engineering hurdles that had to be overcome to
build the Erie Canal in the first place. And after all, are
we not Americans? Are we not sportsmen?
And once the way is clear think of the possibilities!
Hundreds of miles of ice for competitive thletes, who
will be cheered on by mobs of spectators, not to mention
the enormous ecreational and economic opportunities
for millions of people living in scores of chilly communities
ranging from one-horse Hootervilles to cities such as
yracuse, and Albany.
Finally, if the Elfstedentocht does move to the Erie Canal
don’t feel sorry for the Dutch. They’re rich enough to
afford the trip to America. And they have their other
problems with global arming well in hand. Sure,
two-thirds of their country lies below sea level. The
lowest point, minus 21.8 feet, is twice the depth of the
bowl where New Orleans sprawls, and is marked by a
tablet behind a car dealership.
But unlike New Orleans Holland has the resources to keep
the brine at bay. Over the
centuries the Dutch have built
massive sea walls and flood-control dams, 1,500 miles of
dikes, 120 miles of reinforced sea dunes, and 3,748 miles of drainage canals. Plus, they
seem hard-wired with a sort of Hans Brinker vigilance about leaks in these defenses that makes an unattended breach unlikely.
Meanwhile, rising seas might encourage the growth of a Dutch sport that’s now largely unknown to the rest of the world—wadlopen, or mudwalking. On summer mornings at low tide hundreds of people in sensible shoes line up behind guides and trudge the five or six miles from the Friesian coast across the mud flats to one of the gorgeous, sandy islands in the Wadden Sea, islands covered with wild roses. As they leave solid ground behind they pass by seals and sea birds and tidal pools and briny creeks bearing armadas of imperious ducks.
The sport is curiously liberating and even exhilarating, if you keep in mind that if you don’t
get to an island before the tides roll back in you’ll drown. And who knows, as the planet warms and wadlopen becomes more hazardous maybe the Waddenzee will becomes a destination for thrill-seekers all over the world who like to defy death.
For the Dutch, this development won’t make up for the loss of the Elfstedentocht. But it might ease the pain. •
[Paul Belder, a Dutch citizen who skated in the 1997 Elfstedentocht, kindly contributed to this article, which has been revised since it first appeared here in the winter of 2006. He reports that the Dutch national meteorological institute is predicting that in the 21st century 10 races can still take place based on common scenarios for global climate change. And Belder says that according to Henk Angenent, the last champion, even if the Elfstedentocht can't be skated for another century it can only retain its uniqueness if it's held in Holland.]
To learn more about wadlopen read "Come mudwalk with me across the bottom of the sea."
COPYRIGHT © 2008 BILL VAUGHN
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