By Jelmer Herms

There are some out there who would consider the Dutch to be a rather stoic bunch, even in the face of terrible tragedies or beautiful art.[1] Perhaps our reserved and laid-back attitude is the result of our even-tempered (but generally dissatisfying) sea climate, our geopolitical insignificance, or maybe our lack of traditional food with any sort of defined flavour. Perhaps we simply prefer to be left alone. In any case, this rather expressionless ‘Dutchness‘ is only very rarely exchanged for a more visible kind of enthusiasm. Above all else, there is one national sport that gets Dutch hearts beating with joy: Ice-skating. This might not necessarily come as a surprise to some of our fellow Europeans, considering that the Dutch have managed to claim a disproportionate number of medals in ice-skating compared to the size of our little country in past ice-skating tournaments. As Washington Post sports columnist Barry Svrluga put it during the 2018 Winter Olympics:

The Dutch have a long-standing passion for speedskating… and so they will bring their bands and their beers and their orange hats and clothes to that venue and — how to put this? — go absolutely loony for their sport… There have been 12 medals issued at these Olympics across four long-track speedskating events. Dutch skaters have won eight of them, including all four golds.[2]

As you can see, ice-skating is very deeply engrained in Dutch culture, and the most obvious expression of our affection for the sport is the so-called Elfstedentocht, or in other words, the ‘Eleven-Cities-Tour’. A tradition that goes back as far as 1909, the Elfstedentocht is organized whenever possible in winter by the (and I kid you not) Royal Society of the Eleven Frisian Cities. It is an ice-skating tour across eleven cities in the Dutch province of Friesland that spans almost 200 kilometres of entirely natural ice. ‘The Tour of Tours’, as it is sometimes referred to, is quite an ambitious undertaking to participate in, as it requires a significant amount of stamina to complete. The winner of the last Elfstedentocht in 1997, Henk Angenent, completed the entire track of 199,6 kms in an incredible time of 6 hours and 49 minutes, but for most it would take more than twice as long. In fact, in the most difficult of years, the legendary winter of 1963, only 5.5% of participants actually managed to go the entire distance due to extreme weather conditions.

Considering our generally displeasing sea climate, weather conditions have often interfered with us celebrating our lovely ‘Tour de Frise’. Not only because setting out a viable ice-skating track on 200km of ice is in itself a particularly difficult and time-consuming job in tough weather conditions, but also because the weather conditions need to be very specific for the ice to be of sufficient quality. In order to cultivate the quality of ice required for hundreds of thousands of people to skate over, you need consistent freezing temperatures for many weeks without too many blizzards, hailstorms, or even rough winds. These conditions are not easy to meet, and it might therefore not surprise you that the tour doesn’t happen every year, and in fact has not happened since 1997, in spite of the best efforts of Dutch ice-skating organizations. More precisely, it’s been over 8070 days since the last tour, meaning that we have gone over the previous longest period between ‘Eleven City Tours’ ever. As a result, there are those who believe there will never be an Elfstedentocht ever again, and scientific data doesn’t do much to dissuade people from thinking this way.[3] Research by the Dutch Compendium for Living Environment has pointed out that the chances of an Elfstedentocht happening in any one winter has reduced from 26% in 1950 to only 6,7% in 2017.[4] Climate change plays a likely role in exacerbating this effect, as they continue to point out that rising average temperatures reduce the chances of extreme cold, making it even more difficult for the Tour to take place. The Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) is taking a similar position. They point out that climate models are not predicting favourable conditions for an Elfstedentocht, and they conclude that increased carbon dioxide emissions and the increase in global temperature will lead to a substantially decreased number of possible winters for organizing the event. In a typically Dutch feat of comedy, the KNMI goes on to doubt whether world leaders will lose much sleep over these conclusions, and I can only agree that it’s unlikely that our fellow European nations will find our ice-skating events a sufficiently compelling reason to make changes to their policy. In spite of such disheartening prospects, many Dutch people remain hopeful for a new Tour to this day, and the legendary phrase ‘it giet oan’ (it goes on; it’s going to happen) is still used annually at the first sign of any kind of ice on the fosses. The previous chair of the Royal Society of the Eleven Frisian Cities, Auke Hylkema, only recently restated his religious faith in the eventual return of the ‘Tour of Tours’, and he is not the only one who keeps his hopes up.

I wish I could be as hopeful as Mr. Hylkema about the fate of this celebrated Dutch tradition, but it seems that in this particular case, both our fellow man and the elements themselves have made one of those rare moments of genuine Dutch joy even harder to realize. I am aware that the Netherlands is one of the least sustainable countries in the EU, and I can only hope that this starts changing soon.[5] However, even if we managed to right all our wrongs this very day, we remain but a small drop in a much larger European bucket, and we need a much, much cleaner bucket if Europe and the rest of the world are to keep this world a habitable place for future generations.[6] Leaders of the world, if you cannot lose enough sleep over the slowly declining quality of our world’s natural environment[7], the dangers of water scarcity, or extreme temperatures, consider this haunting image over your evening tea:[8] Picture all those quietly disgruntled Dutch faces, their reserved but hopeful smiles slowly melting away along with the last remnants of the polar icecaps.

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