- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 30, 2018

WOLVEGA, Netherlands (AP) - No! Absolutely no way! No one should be counting on a repeat performance. Not even the most optimistic Dutchman does.

Yes, count on the Dutch to dominate the oval at the Pyeongchang Olympics, but don’t expect them to suffocate opposition like they did in Sochi four years ago, when they turned the Olympic hall into a swelling sea of their national color, orange, courtesy of a massive haul of 23 of 36 medals, including eight out of 12 golds.

It was dominance rarely seen in top class international sports. Think the USA ruling Olympic basketball, Jamaica the recent track sprints and China table tennis.

“There is only one goal and that is doing the best you can. The more, the better,” Dutch skating technical director Arie Koops said in an interview in Friesland, the pond- and canal-ridden flatlands in the northern Netherlands which have produced countless champions.

Yet even he knows that the endless nights in Sochi’s Holland Heineken House celebrating the likes of Sven Kramer and Ireen Wust cannot be repeated every four years.

“It is really more realistic to talk about 15, or even less,” he said.

History bears him out. The only other time the Netherlands broke into double digits over the past two decades was at the 1998 Nagano Games with 11.

OK, he said. “If it is less than 12, we underperform. We can say that.”

In one sense though, it has become easier to haul in medals since the mass start event has been added to the program, bumping the total from 36 to 42.

And in an unexpected boon for the Dutch, the IOC’s punishment for Russia’s doping program has a direct and fundamental impact on the men’s competition.

Look at the World Cup standings this year, and right on top sits Denis Yuskov with five gold medals already in the 1,000 and 1,500 meters. He has been ruled out of the Pyeongchang Games. Same goes for Pavel Kulizhnikov, who already won a World Cup 1,000 and is also a fearsome 500 sprinter.

Then again, some things are going against the Dutch this year.

They had four clean sweeps in Sochi in 10 possible events, including the women’s 1,500 where the top four were Dutch. It almost turned into an embarrassment.

Four entries per event were whittled to three in some races this year and for the men’s 10,000 and women’s 5,000 only two per nation are allowed this time around. Gone is any mathematical chance for a sweep in the longest races on the track.

“It will directly influence our chances for the medals,” said Koops.

And this time around, it looks like the opposition is in better shape, too. In the women’s races going into the Olympics, the Japanese are definitely the No. 1 team, with Miho Takagi and Nao Kodaira topping the provisional World Cup standings and with the relay team adding one world record after another.

Canada and Norway also look in better shape.

And the United States especially will want to bounce back from a humiliating no-medal showing in Sochi. Heather Bergsma has already won a World Cup gold in the 1,000 this season and Brittany Bowe is starting to hit her stride. And count on Joey Mantia as a medal contender among the men.

While the Americans immediately settled into a rut in Sochi, U.S. coach Matt Kooreman saw how the Dutch rode a great early start when they swept the opening men’s 5,000 meters.

“They got the momentum going there and you could see that confidence build throughout their team which turned them into the dominant force,” Kooreman said.

Then again, he added, it is only natural. No country comes close to unleashing national passion for speedskating like the Dutch do.

While a Florida resident like Bowe needs to fly halfway across the continent to get to a big oval, an Amsterdammer can get to 16 of them, all lying within a few hours by train or car.

The Dutch have some 60 pro skaters and a half-dozen commercial teams. More importantly, said Koops, “when the temperature is below zero everybody is skating on canals and lakes.” And that counts for far more than a million in the nation of 17 million.

Sometimes Kooreman thinks it is quite an achievement to just get close to the Dutch in the medal tables, let alone beat them.

“We are always all a little bit shocked with how well we actually do,” said Kooreman.

Another thing also pleads in Dutch favor. The famed oompah band Kleintje Pils will also be on the sidelines of the oval to bring that special Dutch atmosphere to South Korea.

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