Speed skating: GB team launches with long-term bid to catch Dutch

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Dutch schoolchildren skated rings around the BBC's Anna Holligan

Dutch speed skaters obliterated their opposition at the Olympics.

Thirty-six medals were on offer to long track speed skaters at Sochi 2014. The Netherlands won 23 of them, including four podium sweeps.

The United States, formerly a speed skating superpower, limped away with not one medal to show. "Worst. Olympics. Ever," US star Shani Davis wryly told reporters, while clutching a chocolate medal - a gift from a fan after he had finished empty-handed.

Who then, if not the US, can muscle in on the wall of orange that is speed skating?

Step forward, Great Britain.

There has not been a British long track speed skating team in decades. Nor is there a 400m rink - the size you need to train and compete - in the United Kingdom. Nor is there any cash.

Those might ordinarily be problems. In winter sport, though, Britain sometimes finds a way. There is no skeleton track in the UK, either, but Team GB has back-to-back Olympic champions in the sport.

Sam Airey
Sam Airey, aged 15, is currently Britain's leading long track speed skater

Is a British long track team actually feasible, then?

"We're hoping to qualify one speed skater for the 2018 Olympics, at least," says Rene Groot.

Groot is part of the UK's long track development team. They are all volunteers and yes, Groot is Dutch. He used to work for the Rapha cycling team but "decided cycling wasn't really moving forwards" and has devoted his attention to long track.

"For the 2022 Games, we're hoping to have a full team there," he says.

"As an Olympic sport, speed skating deserves an honest chance to develop. Twenty years of neglect is not going to disappear in one or two years, but now is as good a time as any to start."

Britain already has speed skaters. One of the best is 15-year-old Sam Airey, who has lived with his family in the Netherlands since he was one year old. Now he is winning regional youth races in a country obsessed with speed skating.

"Skating here is like football in England. Pretty much everyone watches it," says Airey as his father drives him to his evening training session. He will spend 90 minutes focusing on jogging and leg exercises.

Airey and his dad were the initial impetus behind the formation of the new British programme, before Groot came on board. If anyone gets to the Olympics for Britain in 2018, at the moment it looks like Sam Airey would be the one.

"Sam is the first British junior ever to have qualified for this week's Viking race, which is the unofficial European Championships of speed skating," says Groot, explaining why Airey is special. The teenager is, his says his father, among the top 40 in the world for his age.

Groot continues: "He was selected by the district of South Holland which, in Holland, is quite difficult. It's a big region and he is in the top 5% of skaters.

"It's actually quite something that a foreigner has made it into their selection."

There are other aspirant British long trackers: Phil Brojaka, a veteran who for many years was practically the lone Briton in the sport, may yet be tempted to return. Two young women in the United States are eligible to skate for Britain and posting encouraging results. Scott Anderson, who has spent a five-figure sum to train at an elite academy in Germany, is approaching international level.

But without a rink, the sport cannot foster long-term ambitions in the UK.

Sir Steve Redgrave first proposed a 400m long track rink for Britain during Vancouver 2010. While his idea is not dead, Redgrave and others have found supportive local councils hard to come by.

However, the Dutch company behind a recent sports complex in the Netherlands has expressed interest in replicating its idea in the UK. One or two other, similar projects are also being tentatively developed. "It could happen before the next Olympics," insists Groot.

In the meantime, the fledgling British team has an arrangement to train in the Netherlands - and the Dutch are happy to see a new nation in 'their' sport.

"They like it," says Airey. "They don't really mind it as much as I thought they would. They just find it really cool to have a British person skating with the Dutch team."

Groot says: "The Dutch coaches are very keen to help, and the Dutch speed skating federation is helping us with qualifications for British coaches."

But Groot and the team know all help will cease the moment the plucky Brits transform themselves into anything bordering on a serious threat. They need to become self-reliant, and that means their own rink, a steady stream of athletes, and the money to do all this.

Money. Is there any?

"Not yet," admits Groot. "That's what we're looking at. We're looking everywhere."

But there is enthusiasm and a little knowledge, which is a start. There are now introductory classes using smaller rinks in the UK, with the opportunity to travel to the Netherlands if the sport appeals and you fit the bill (you can email the team to find out more).

And for Airey, watching Dutch dominance at the Olympics as his Netherlands neighbours cheer to the rafters, there is the chance his dream may come true.

"I do see it," he says, uncertainly at first but then with more conviction.

"It's going to be really difficult to do it. But I do see myself being as good as them, one day."

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