About the Elfstedentocht: The Legendary Dutch Sports Event That Hasn’t Taken Place in over Two Decades!

Waking up to a world covered in a layer of ice this morning suddenly reminded me of the Elfstedentocht, literally the ‘eleven cities tour’, an ice skating tour of nearly 200 kilometres in the Netherlands. Although this must be the most anticipated sports event in the country, it has only taken place 15 times since its very first official edition in 1909.

Ice skating is one of the top national sports Dutchies seem to excel in, next to football, swimming and hockey, none of which appear in my DNA by the way. Despite growing up in Friesland, the most northern province in the Netherlands, and the location of the Elfstedentocht, my few ice skating adventures have been complete disasters which I’d rather forget.

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Unlike this lady, I wasn’t made for ice skating! Source: Shutterstock.

The ideal icy cold weather conditions

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The Elfstedentocht route. Image from Shutterstock.

Despite my non-existing skating skills (rollerblading is equally a big disaster, I even manage to topple over whilst standing completely still…), I still remember how excited I was at the time of the 1985 and 1986 editions of the Elfstedentocht as a little girl. Although I didn’t have a clue what the impact of this extreme sports event was on the participants’ bodies, I still recall being glued to the TV in the early morning to watch the live broadcast. The following edition wasn’t until 1997 and there hasn’t been one in the last 21 years! No wonder the entire country gets anxious about the possibility of a tour after a few consecutive icy cold winter days. The last time the Netherlands suffered from the Elfstedentochtkoorts (‘Elfstedentocht fever’) was in 2012, but unfortunately it was cancelled due to poor ice conditions.

Considering the event attracts over 16,000 participants, including a few hundred competitive skaters, it’s crucial the ice is at least 15 centimetres thick along the entire 199km-long route. Once the Elfstedentocht committee decides the ice and weather conditions are fit for the event, it has to take place within 48 hours of the announcement. The circular route passes eleven historic Frisian towns and starts in Leeuwarden, the capital of the province of Friesland. I grew up in the town of Heerenveen, about 30 kilometres from Leeuwarden, so I was very close to the action!

Frostbite and Royal participants

Since the first Elfstedentocht there have been some historic editions, such as the one in 1963, which is known as the ‘Hell of 1963’ due to the extreme weather conditions. 18 January 1963 is a famous date in Dutch history. That night the temperature dropped down to -18 degrees Celsius. The high of that day was a mere -3 degrees Celsius, making it the coldest day of the 20th century in the Netherlands. Despite these extreme temperatures, the ice was too weak in some locations along the route and the organisation had to perform some emergency ‘ice transplants’. Combined with the strong icy cold winds, the skating conditions were unbearable. While 10,000 participants started the tour, only 69 participants made it to the finish. It’s a miracle no-one died that night, but many suffered snow blindness and frostbite. The events of this horrific night were captured in the Dutch feature film De Hel van ’63 (The Hell of ’63).

The 1986 edition of the Elfstedentocht is historic for a completely different reason. That was the year that 18-year old Prince (now King) Willem-Alexander took part. He entered the event under the pseudonym W.A. van Buren and his presence wasn’t discovered until halfway the route. Without any proper training – he decided 2 days before the tour to participate because he had said in a bet he could finish it – he completed the entire route. Considering the Elfstedentocht is dubbed the ‘Tour of all tours’ due to its length and brutal weather conditions, this was quite a feat.

While I pour myself another hot drink and cuddle up on the sofa with my blanket, I’ll continue feeling nostalgic and patriotic, and hope a new Elfstedentocht may take place in the near future. When that day is finally here again, I’ll make sure to let you know!

Do you have any memories of the Elfstedentocht? I’d love to hear/read them!