Speedskating at Sochi: it's all about the Dutch

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — In the last speedskating race of the Sochi Olympics, there was really no doubt about which team would win.

Even the Dutch were coasting for a while on their way to another gold medal.

"We didn't have to do our utmost," Jorien ter Mors, part of the winning team in women's pursuit, conceded. "We had to make sure we didn't fall."

And that's essentially what has happened in speedskating. The Dutch piled up eight golds and 23 medals overall in a dozen events on the Sochi big oval — nearly twice as many medals as every other country combined.

"I really didn't think we could be this good," said Sven Kramer, who won two golds and a silver. "It surprises me, too."

Clearly, everyone else has a lot of work to do between now and 2018 just to catch up, particularly former powerhouses such as the United States, Germany and Norway.

The results were so lopsided that International Skating Union President Ottavio Cinquanta told The Associated Press that he will push for a special investigation into why the other teams weren't competitive: "Somebody is sleeping, is not working enough."

The shutout in Sochi was especially stunning for the Americans.

They arrived at the Winter Games coming off a strong World Cup season and talking confidently of taking a run at their best performance ever. Instead the U.S. was a total flop, kept off the podium for the first time since 1984.

"Worst ... Olympics ... EVER," said two-time gold medalist Shani Davis, who never got up to speed in Sochi.

He had plenty of company on the U.S. team, which — in a move wreaking of total desperation — dumped its touted high-tech suits halfway through the games and went back to the suit its skaters were using before the Olympics. It didn't help; the top individual showing for the Americans was seventh. Davis finished eighth and 11th in his two best events. On the final day, the women placed sixth in team pursuit for the highest U.S. ranking of the competition.

"We came in being one of the most decorated (skating teams) in the Winter Olympics and we come away with zero medals," Davis said. "It's horrible."

The U.S. wasn't alone in that department.

The Norwegian team, so disheartened at its prospects in the 10,000 meters, didn't send anyone to race in the event.

"It is not the Netherlands' fault. We are not good enough," national coach Jarle Pedersen said. "Their second best skaters are probably better than most on the national teams of other countries."

Germany's best performer was Claudia Pechstein, who turned 42 on Saturday. The South Koreans also took a step back after their strong performance in Vancouver, dropping from five medals to two.

Having such a tradition-steeped sport dominated by one nation at the Olympics has caught Cinquanta's attention. He will look into the possibility of providing national federations with financial incentives linked to performance.

He said the ISU is "available to spend some money, to invest money — not to give money for free, like rain."

It is clear, though, that too many countries haven't spent enough time or resources preparing for speed skating at the Olympics.

And to get interest going, the ISU is considering things like mass start events and even mixed team pursuit races to boost popularity. Purists will baulk at some things, but changes are necessary.

No matter what, it's going to be tough for any country to catch the Dutch.

"The culture in ingrained from childhood," Kramer said. "The kids almost have to kill each other to get into an interclub competition ... 12 to 14-year-olds already know how to deal with this tension. That is the real basis of our success"

The main concern now for the Dutch is that the standard they've set in Sochi will be difficult to match at Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.

"If we want to recreate this masterpiece again, everything will have to go our way," Dutch team manager Arie Koops said. "I can only hope the other countries bounce back and will be at their best again in four years."

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AP Sports Writers Paul Newberry and Beth Harris contributed to this report.