Elfstedentocht:  An Ice Skating Marathon that Shows more than Just a Country's Love for the Ice


Figure 1: The above image is a map of the Netherlands and its key cities.  Significant surrounding areas are also shown.  Source: http://netherlands.embassyhomepage.com/map_of_the_netherlands.htm



At first glance it would appear that celebrations such as Elfstedentocht are just a way for people to enjoy the company of others. However, Elfstedentocht is much more than just that. It is a celebration that unites a country and continually inspires the people throughout the Netherlands to remain strong despite any struggles that may exist in the present or arise in the future. Elfstedentocht reminds the people of the difficulties that their country faced on its march to independence and incorporates many of the ideals that they have developed within their culture. For the Dutch the celebration has become more than a joyous activity, it has come to signify a way of life which can only truly be understood by those who live it.



Figure 2: The above depicts teh route that skates follow as they travel through 11 citiies during the Elfstedentocht marathon.

Source:  http://www.elfstedentocht.nl/en/english.html

Figure 3: On their way to completing the marathon, skaters participating in Elfstedentocht are encouraged by fellow countrymen and countrywomen bearing the cold weather.

Source:  http://www.worldkidmag.com/wk2_close_look_netherlands/



The feeling of joy is one that is best felt rather than described. People express this feeling in many different ways, one such way being through celebration. There are many different kinds of celebrations including religious, rite of passage, seasonal, and a long list of others (Turner 1982). Elfstedentocht is a celebration that takes place in the Netherlands whenever the waterways throughout the country freeze and become thick enough allowing them to be safe for ice skating (LaRoe 1998). Although this is something that may take years to occur, the pleasure brought about by the celebration is one that is definitely worth the wait. Elfstedentocht is a celebration that unifies a nation and reminds them of the social solidarity it took to overcome their struggle throughout history to gain their independence, while also serving as a reminder that there is hope for the future of their country despite any harsh times that may lie ahead.


Context of the Netherlands

The Netherlands is a Western European nation which can be found between Germany and Belgium (Figure 1). Figure 1 also shows that the country is bordered by the North Sea.  Although they are cannot be seen on the above map, the country is connected by a vast number of rivers and waterways. Nearly half of the country can be found below sea level and consists of mostly coastal lowlands (Adato 1997, Rosenburg 2004). Winters and summers in the Netherlands tend to be equally long. Winters are usually mild, while summers are cool (Rosenburg 2004). Rarely does it become cold enough for the waterways and rivers to freeze enough to be skated upon, but when they do the Dutch put their skates to use and enjoy themselves in a great celebration known as Elfstedentocht (LaRoe 1998). Figure 3 shows some of these skaters and Figure 2 depicts the path they take throughout 11 cities across the country. After a struggle for centuries to become an independent nation, celebrations such as the Elfstedentocht allow individuals to unite in order to show the identity of a nation they worked so hard to establish.

At some point during their development, almost all countries are forced to fight for their independence. Throughout the 15 th and 16 th centuries, the territory of the Netherlands was a province that remained under the power of a government whose rulers consisted mainly of Burgundian dukes and Habsburg princes (Smit 1973:vi). The 17 th century marked a true beginning to the development of the Dutch Republic and the beginning of what we now know as the Netherlands . However, it was not until the Belgian Evolution in 1830 that the Netherlands truly became its own separate entity, finally separating itself from the likes of Belgium and Spain which are two of the countries who held partial control over the country for many decades (Newton 1978:1).

The first settlers of the region we call the Netherlands were farmers and to this day the Netherlands still has an agricultural export economy, although it has also grown to be an industrialized nation as well. The people who originally lived in the land that would become the Netherlands came from a variety of backgrounds. This diversity was the direct result of people flocking to the Netherlands to avoid religious or political persecution from the country in which they resided (Newton 1978: 3). This original diversity is largely a part of what makes the Netherlands what it is today. The Dutch have typically been known as a peaceful people, people that are very accepting of differences, and a people who only resort to fighting when all other options have been exhausted. The nation established a position of neutrality involving most world issues mainly keeps to itself.


Origins of Elfstedentocht

Elfstedentocht which can be translated to mean “eleven city tours” can be traced back to the year 1890 (De Friesche Elf Steden 2002). During the winter of 1890-1891, hundreds of people completed the tour now known as Elfstedentocht. After this, a man known for his skating, William Mulier, began to express his ideas regarding an organized tour, which (unknowingly to him) would become a national celebration. Years later in 1909, the Frisian Skating Association adopted Mulier's ideas and established what is considered the first celebration of Elfstedentocht (De Friesche Elf Steden 2002). However, this association did not view this celebration as one they would continue to hold throughout the years. In order to establish a celebration that would last, Hempkema, a lawyer who found much good in the celebration, formed the “De Friesche Elf Steden” association (De Friesche Elf Steden 2002). With the establishment of this association, the Elfstedentocht celebration has continued to prosper whenever the weather permits.



The two most observable elements found throughout the Elfstedentocht celebration are clearly the weather itself and the skaters' attire. In order for the celebration to even take place all waterways along the tour must be frozen up to several inches (LaRoe 1998). Therefore, weather conditions tend to be harsh, but harsh conditions have never prevented the Dutch from persevering. To combat the drastic conditions, both participants and spectators must be dressed accordingly. Clothing is worn in layers to serve as protection from the harsh weather. In the instance of competitive skaters, there are often specially designed suits that are worn which provide the skater with full range of motion as well as warmth. Most importantly, the ice skates themselves allow the participants to travel along the treacherous ice and glide the 125 miles to the finish line (Janssen 1994). Finally, the winner of the competitive tour is given a medal (Figure 4). However, this medal brings with it a sense of pride and recognition that cannot be matched in the Netherlands . To gain an understanding of this pride and recognition, one needs to look no further than a quote by a Dutch sportswriter in which he describes a previous winner as being, “just as famous as our king or queen” (Weir 2002).



Figure 4:  The above medal is similiar to the one given to the winner of Elfstedentocht. 

Source:  http://www.deloodsboot.nl/sportnieuws/elfstedentocht.htm




Prognosis for Elfstedentocht

Despite the face that Elfstedentocht has only been able to take place four times in the past forty years, it still appears to be growing in popularity (Weir 2002). The last celebration was held nearly eight years ago and it was reported that nearly 16,000 people laced up their skates to participate in the marathon while millions gathered along the path of the race or watched on their televisions in the comfort of their own homes (Adato 1997). The growth in the festivals popularity has led organizers to require skaters to register due to the overwhelming amount of people wanting to participate (De Friesche Elf Steden 2002). Just three years ago a 255 page book was written by Johannes Lolkama entitled "De Tocht der Tochten, Tragiek en Triomf" which “describes the development and growth of the Elfstedentocht on ice from 1747 – 2001” (De Friesche Elf Steden 2002). It appears that the years that pass between the Elfstedentocht celebration only add to the sense of excitement and joy brought about when the marathon is able to take place.



Elfstedentocht is a celebration that allows all Dutch people to come together as one while incorporating many of the cultural ideals and historical events that make the Netherlands what it is today. Throughout the 125 mile ice marathon, as well as all the events leading up to the race and those that follow it, people bear the harsh conditions to encourage the skaters to conquer the fierce weather surrounding them (Janssen 1994). The praise given to the winner of this marathon has been described as being, “just as famous as our king or queen” and this description shows the importance of the celebration in the minds of the Dutch (Weir 2002). Elfstedentocht is an ice skating marathon that shows more than just a country's love for the ice. The celebration exemplifies Dutch ideals and is symbolic of the nations fight for freedom.


Internet References Cited

  • De Friesche Elf Steden

    •  2002    Verenging “De Friesche Elf Steden”. Electronic document, http://www.elfstedentocht.nl/en/english.htm . Accessed on, October 12, 2004 .

    Note: The creators of this site are the men and women who belong to the organization that began the Elfstedentocht celebration. The purpose of the site is to update people on any news regarding the Elfstedentocht, provide people with a brief overview of the history of Elfstedentocht, and also recognize past winners of the marathon.

  • Digital Region Friesland

    •  2002    Elevencitiestour -- Vereniging "De Friesche Elf Steden. Electronic document, http://www.drf.nl/sport/11steden/indexeng.htm . Accessed on October 19, 2004 .

    Note: The creator of this site appears to be a Dutch organization. The goal of the site is to inform people about the rules, regulations, and history of Elfstedentocht .

  • Geert de Jonge Media

    •  2002    Elfstedentocht – Alvestêdetocht, 1909 – 1997. Electronic document, http://www.deloodsboot.nl/sportnieuws/elfstedentocht.htm . Accessed on, October 28, 2001 .

    Note: The creator was a media company in the Netherlands . It is a site designed to inform people about various sports news related to the Dutch community.

  • Rosenburg, Matt.

    •  2004    Netherlands . Electronic document, http://geography.about.com/ library/cia /blcnetherlands.htm


    Note: This website was designed to provide details about the Netherlands geography, climate, culture, and much more. The information was written by a geographer by the name of Matt Rosenburg who is the Director of Emergency Services for the Red Cross .


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

  • Adato, Allison.

    •  1997    Ice Dream. Life 20(3):68.

  • Janssen, Roel.

    •  1994   Water Holidays. Europe (336):37-38.

  • LaRoe, Lisa Moore.

    •  1998    The Netherlands Ode to Ice. National Geographic 193(1):96.

  • Newton, Gerald.

    •  1978    The Netherlands : a Historical and Cultural Survey 1795-1977.

    London : Ernst Benn.

  • Smit, Pamela.

    •  1973    The Netherlands : A Chronology and Fact Book. In Introduction and Chronology edited by Pamela and J.W. Smit, pp. v-vi, 1-18, 46-60. New York : Ocean Publications, Inc.

  • Turner, Victor and Edith.

       1982    Religious Celebrations. As taken from http://blackboard.muohio.edu/courses/1/20051010360/content/_193027_1/Turner_and_Turner_1982_Religious_Celebrations.pdf
  • Weir, Tom.

    •  2002    Give Dutch their Due on Olympic Oval. USA Today . Section: Bonus. pp. 03d.


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