When the ice is 'good,' the skaters are off

Dutch hang on weatherman's words hoping for a cold snap fit for a race.

When I spent a weekend back in my native Amsterdam recently, the first thing that struck me was the fact that everyone seemed to be rejoicing about the arctic temperatures.

"Isn't this great?" asked a newspaper salesman, blowing out great puffs of white steam.

"Great?" I asked incredulously, pulling my woolly scarf tighter. "What's so great about freezing weather?"

The man shot me a look as if I were a traitor. I had been away so long, that I had forgotten that frosty spells are actually a matter of national pride here.

To the Dutch, they mean just one thing: the possibility that our most loved national event can be staged. The Eleven Cities Ice Skating Tour is a gruelling 125-mile race, in which competitors skate from one city to the next along frozen waterways. The one-day trek can only be held if the waterways connecting all 11 towns freeze at the same time.

"Yes, the weather is on our side," the man continued. "But the Euro and Maxima could ruin everything."

Now I really was at a loss. I looked at him quizzically.

"Boy, where have you been?" he asked.

I soon found out what all the fuss was about. The minister of Internal Affairs had said that even if the cold weather persists the 11 cities race cannot be held because the police will be too busy shepherding the smooth transition of the new European currency as well as the royal wedding of the crown prince, who is marrying a woman called Maxima.

The minister warned all administrators of the 12 regional provinces not to stage any "large events" during the coming months. He said the police would have their hands full guarding the trucks loaded with Euros driving through the country, as well as containing the crowds expected in Amsterdam for the marriage on Feb. 2.

The skating marathon is a national institution because it is held so infrequently. Since the first one in 1909, only 15 competitions have been staged. But every year, as soon as temperatures drop, hopes rise.

The national TV weatherman becomes the most closely watched person in the country. He must predict a continuous, frosty spell which would make the ice thick enough to support the weight of the race's 1,600 amateur skaters.

If the cold spell lasts, the TV news goes live to the northern province of Friesland, home to the 11 towns. There, the "Ice Master" - an elderly man with a long grey beard - plunges a ruler into a hole in the ice and gives his verdict. The master only speaks Friesian (a language the Dutch cannot understand) so his learned judgments are subtitled. The only time there is no need for translation is when he says "the ice is good" - a Friesian phrase every Dutchman knows by heart.

Schools are closed, nobody goes to work, and the entire country comes to a standstill. An estimated 70 percent of the country watches the tour on TV; the rest travel north to cheer on participants.

Only half the skaters have the strength to finish the exhausting race. The winner is declared a national hero and, due to his or her newfound celebrity status, can retire because of all the offers to do commercials for sporting goods stores.

So as soon as the minister gave his warning, there was hysteria. Everyone from the national media to navy admirals demanded that the government - before it goes on its Christmas break - guarantee the race would be held no matter what national calamity or benediction was otherwise afflicting the Netherlands.

The chief commissioner of the police said he would order all top-level staff, including himself, to do traffic patrol duty if that would help free up officers.

The minister of defense also stepped forward, offering to mobilize all his troops to guard the sacred route along the 11 cities.

The crown prince, who knows his popularity is at stake, also quickly made it clear where his heart lies. He said if he had to choose between being in Friesland or in Amsterdam on his wedding day, he would prefer to be wearing a pair of skates over a walk down the aisle with Maxima.

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