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Is the end of Dutch ice skating near?

Could climate change wipe out the the Netherlands' Elfstedentocht.

Skaters cross a part of the some 50 meters of the 15th Elfstedentocht over land due to bad ice conditions in the village of Sneek, Jan. 4, 1997. (Jerry Lampen/Reuters)

HINDELOOPEN, the Netherlands — It’s one of the most emblematic images of the Netherlands: rosy-cheeked kids wrapped in wool scarves and pom-pom hats skating along frozen canals that cut thought the flat, snowy landscape.

The skating museum in this picturesque former fishing village is filled with such views. Whether on wintery black-and-white prints or colorful pre-War advertizing posters, they form a backdrop to what’s proudly proclaimed to be the world’s largest collection of skates.

However, with global warming blamed for fewer and fewer cold winters, some in the Netherlands are starting to worry whether the Dutch passion for outdoor ice-skating could be reduced to a memory or museum piece.

“It’s depressing,” said Hans Visser, a researcher at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. “We have a lot of indoor skating … that may keep it alive a bit, but natural ice, that is the real thing for the people of the Netherlands, getting out into the nature.”

Read about another reason why the Dutch may be loosing their identity.

Visser is co-author of a report issued earlier this year that caused consternation among Dutch skating fans by looking at the potentially calamitous impact of climate change on the country’s greatest ice race.

Hindeloopen museum
The Hindeloopen skating museum claims the world's largest collection of ice skates.
(Paul Ames/GlobalPost)

The Elfstedentocht, or Eleven City Tour, is one of the world’s most grueling sports events, a 200-kilometer (125-mile) trek along the canals on a circuit that links Hindeloopen to 10 other towns in the northern province of Friesland.

Dutch sports fans say its grip on the national psyche is like the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup and World Series rolled into one. The aura is magnified by the fact that only 15 Elfstedentochts have been held since the first official race in 1909, because on most years temperatures do not fall enough to provide the required thickness of ice along the course.

Up to 16,000 skaters, amateurs and pros, take part, cheered on by almost 2 million spectators — one in eight of the whole population. The winners are hailed as national heroes. In the mythical 1963 race, just 136 crossed the line out of 10,000 who set out in a raging blizzard.

“It is THE major event in the Netherlands,” said Wiebe Wieling, chairman of the Elfstedentocht Foundation, which organizes the race. “You are really an extreme hero for your family and your neighbors and your relatives just for finishing.”

The last race was held in 1997.