Five-ring Circus

Olympics Jerk Watch: The Record-Setting Swedish Speedskater Who Hates the Dutch

Van der Poel in his speedskating suit smiling and waving
Nils van der Poel at the Winter Olympics in Beijing on Friday. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images.

Olympics Jerk Watch is a long-running feature that subjectively rates the jerkiness (or lack thereof) of the biggest stars of the Summer and Winter Games.

Nominee: Nils van der Poel

Home Country: Sweden

Known for: Setting world records, being a “character,” ragging on the Dutch

Why he might be a jerk: Swedish speedskating superstar Nils van der Poel has had an excellent Olympics. He’s won two gold medals, in the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter races, setting a new world record for the 10,000-meter and a new Olympic record for the 5,000-meter.

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What made these victories even sweeter, from van der Poel’s perspective, is that each of them came at the direct expense of a rival athlete from the Netherlands. The silver medalist in both the 5,000-meter and the 10,000-meter races in Beijing was Dutch speedskater Patrick Roest. This must have made van der Poel feel good, because van der Poel loves putting one over on the Dutch.

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The Swedes and the Dutch are natural rivals, I assume. (I refuse to fact-check this assumption, but it sounds true.) Though van der Poel has Dutch heritage, his family background has not in any way stopped him from roasting the Dutch at any and every opportunity. As a junior skater in 2015, according to an entertaining New York Times article, van der Poel and American skater Emery Lehman once pranked the Dutch junior team by sneaking into their room and hiding raw fish everywhere. (They bought the fish at a gas station, which indicates either that the gas station was especially fancy or the fish were especially disgusting.) “The Dutch came back and it smells like fish everywhere,” van der Poel told the Times. “And the Norwegians just got all the blame for it!” Pulling a smelly prank and letting Norway take the blame for it is one of the classic hallmarks of a jerk.

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These days, van der Poel has graduated to more open trolling of the Dutch. At a skating competition in Germany this October, van der Poel sat in the stands as Patrick Roest skated the 5,000-meter race, clanging a cowbell in front of a homemade banner that said “Patrick, Hup Hup,” with a Dutch flag drawn in the corner and some little hearts near the bottom. This pro-wrestling-style heel move drew the ire of the retired Dutch speedskater Erben Wennemars, who called it a “weird action” on Twitter and noted that “great champions are concerned with their own preparation.” Speaking to a Dutch website later, van der Poel speculated that Roest may have appreciated the support, and noted that he, at least, “thought it was funny.” It was sort of funny! But also sort of jerky!

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Since coming to Beijing, van der Poel has gotten more serious—about talking shit about the Dutch, that is. After winning the 5,000-meter race, van der Poel sharply criticized Dutch speedskating officials at a news conference for allegedly trying to tinker with the ice conditions at the Beijing Olympic speedskating facility to make them more favorable to Dutch skaters. How one makes ice more Dutch remains a scientific mystery. But, sourcing his charges to an article that appeared on a Dutch skating website, van der Poel called it “corruption” on par with doping and suggested it was his “moral obligation” to force the issue. The Dutch, of course, denied that they had manipulated the ice in Beijing to their benefit, and Patrick Roest wondered whether van der Poel was just trying to play head games before the 10,000-meter race. If that was van der Poel’s plan, well, it worked! Turns out that jerks are very good at head games.

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The Dutch aren’t the only ones whom van der Poel enjoys razzing. In 2021, when he broke the then world record in the 10,000-meter race, which had been held by Canada’s Graeme Fish, van der Poel yelled, “Eat fish for dinner!” at a television camera. While a very good idea, healthwise, it’s also sort of a jerky thing to say, basically the equivalent of yelling “Suck it!” You know who likes to tell other people to suck it? Jerks.

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You know what else van der Poel hates? Speedskating itself, apparently. His training routine for speedskating often involves doing everything but speedskating: running and bicycling for long distances, skydiving, joining the army for a year. During the Beijing Games, van der Poel announced that “speedskating sucks”; after winning the 10,000-meter race, he suggested that he might retire from the sport entirely. If so, speedskating would surely mourn the loss of one of its most talented athletes, as well as one of its most entertaining jerks.

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Why he might not be a jerk: In speedskating circles, I gather, hating the Dutch is sort of like hating the New York Yankees, or the New England Patriots, or Duke men’s basketball: less a reflection on the personality of the hater than on the dominance of the hatee. The Netherlands has dominated world speedskating for the past decade. At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Dutch skaters took gold in all but one of the men’s speedskating events, and in three of the six women’s events—and they took lesser medals in all of the events that they did not win. They were somewhat less dominant in 2018, only bringing home seven out of 14 possible gold medals across all men’s and women’s events, and winning zero medals in either of the 500-meter races. This is how dominant the Dutch have been at speedskating since 2014: A “bad Olympics” for them is one in which they only win 16 speedskating medals.

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Sweden, for its part, won zero speedskating medals in either 2014 or 2018. Counting van der Poel’s two medals in Beijing, the Swedes have only won 18 speedskating medals in the history of the Winter Olympics—five fewer speedskating medals than the Netherlands won in 2014 alone. Bearing these disparate national histories in mind, van der Poel’s braggadocio seems less jerky than plucky. There’s almost an element of heroism in his ongoing commitment to butting up against Big Speedskating, as represented by the Dutch.

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For what it’s worth, while there may have been some gamesmanship in van der Poel’s decision to shout about the alleged Dutch ice scandal in Beijing, that doesn’t mean that he was wrong to raise the point. In the article that set van der Poel off, Dutch ice scientist Sander van Ginkel suggested that he had been lobbying Beijing ice honcho Mark Messer to make “adjustments that are in our favor”—i.e., to make the ice harder, because the Dutch like hard ice. (So that’s how you make ice more Dutch!) “Many other countries produce riders who have more of a (shorter) punch stroke and for whom hard ice is of less importance,” van Ginkel said in the article. Well, “hard ice” to you, Sander van Ginkel! Maybe you’re the actual jerk here!

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In truth, van der Poel seems less like a jerk than an individualist, and while there is often lots of crossover between the two rubrics, they aren’t always synonymous. He seems to have a complicated relationship with speedskating and to be fundamentally opposed to the Dutch method of training, in which great speedskaters draw salaries and get sponsorships and skate all year long. Van der Poel prefers more free-spirited methods. “I feel like the atmosphere in our sport is sometimes a bit too serious. Skating is so sterile, there’s so much competition, so much measuring, it’s so much about lap times. … We have to remember that we also have to have fun,” he told a Dutch news outlet. It’s hard to argue with this philosophy, especially in light of van der Poel’s results in Beijing.

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Jerk Score: I’ll give Nils van der Poel 2 out of 3 points for style, because he also should have brought an air horn to the race where he trolled Patrick Roest. 0.5 out of 3 for technical merit, because, after all, he’s not the one with the advanced degree in ice science. 3 out of 3 for execution, because while it’s one thing to talk shit about the Dutch, it’s another thing entirely to back it up with gold medals and world records. And 0 out of 1 in the category of “has he mooned anyone yet at the Olympics?” 5.5 out of 10 for Nils van der Poel, and I reserve the right to amend this score if and when he does indeed moon someone before the Games conclude. Next!

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