Virus freezes out legendary Dutch ice race

The Hague (AFP) –


Millions of skating-mad Dutch are eyeing the country's famous canals this winter as an ever-thickening ice layer raises hopes that a legendary race will materialise for the first time in nearly a quarter-century.

But Prime Minister Mark Rutte has put paid to any notion of reviving the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Race), saying skating must be limited to pairs under anti-coronavirus restrictions.

Last held in 1997, the ultra-indurance marathon follows a gruelling 200 kilometre (125-mile) route along the northern Friesland province, and completing it is seen as the ultimate test of character.

Global warming has been blamed for the moth-balling of the race that has been held 15 times since 1909, with tales of hardship, frozen limbs and frostbite adding to the romance.

The record is held by skating legend Evert van Benthem, now 62, who won in 1985 with a time of 6 hours, 47 minutes and retained the title the following year.

Those who complete the race are handed a medal called the Eleven Cities Cross, which even Dutch soldiers are allowed to wear on their uniforms.

For the first time since 1997, thanks to persistent freezing temperatures, the ice may be thick enough to bear the weight of the racers.

But the prime minister has already ruled it out reviving the Elfstedentocht.

"Take advantage of the good weather and the ice, but do it under Covid-19 measures," Rutte told a news conference on Monday. "You can skate with another person, but what you can't do is organise big competitions. Unfortunately that doesn't work."

The Netherlands, which has seen some 14,400 deaths from the virus and recorded more than one million infections, is under a partial lockdown.

Rutte said current measures including the first evening curfew since World War II would be in place until at least March 2.

The Dutch politician added that "complicated" discussions were under way to allow 120 top Dutch skaters to complete the route without spectators.

Rising temperatures The Elfstedentocht has been held 15 times since 1909. But rising temperatures globally have melted hopes -- until now.

The race's organisers concurred on Tuesday that the so-called "Race of Races" could not be held during a pandemic.

"We are talking about a tour with one to 1.5 million visitors, 25,000 participants, thousands of volunteers and half the Netherlands on the road," said Wiebe Wieling, chairman of the Royal Society of the Frisian Eleven Cities.

"Any sane person will realise that such a thing is not possible now," he told the NOS public broadcaster.

Populist far-right parties however have called on Rutte to allow the event to go ahead. The call was supported by the progressive D66 party, a member of Rutte's ruling coalition.