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Thursday, 25 July 2013

Insider in the matter states: Almere wins the contest for the Dutch national skating temple, after hard and sometimes ugly battle with the Frisian skating lobby.

In The Netherlands, speedskating is the national wintersport for professionals, as well as amateurs. Every winter tens of thousands of speedskaters populate the 24 speedskating tracks in The Netherlands for their favorite pastime in winter. They only go elsewhere when the rare Dutch winters have created enough natural ice to skate on the hundreds of ditches, lakes and canals in The Netherlands.

Speedskating is also very popular as a professional sport in The Netherland. This in contrary to many other countries, where shorttrack skating and figure skating are much more popular. 

Hundreds of thousands of fans visit the speedskating stadiums every year, for the national and international championships. The sport gets also hundreds of hours of coverage on Dutch national television, which attracts national and international sponsors, who are aiming at the Dutch market with their business. This is the reason that there are many possible sponsors with financial stamina in The Netherlands, waiting in line to sponsor individual skaters or whole teams. 

The fact that speedskating worldwide is a very small sport and that it could be removed from the official Olympic sports list, when it doesn't become more internationally oriented, doesn't stop interested companies yet. In contrary to cycling, the sport had little to do with dopage issues during the last four decades and the amount of airplay comes very close to cycling, on a yearly basis. This explains the commercial success of speedskating in The Netherlands.

In Heerenveen, a small Dutch city in the province of Friesland, one of the first indoor speedskating halls in the world was established in 1986: Thialf. This famous hall led to a host of speedskating world records on virtually every distance and, as a consequence of this success, it was followed up by Olympic indoor halls in f.i. Calgary (Canada), Hamar (Norway), Nagano (Japan) and Salt Lake City (US).

Where an indoor speedskating hall was a rarity in the eighties, now many countries contending in speedskating and all former Olympic host countries of the last 20 years have one or more indoor speedskating halls. Through innovative cooling and design techniques, the modern indoor ice tracks managed to become much quicker than the ‘old’ halls in Calgary and Heerenveen. Thialf hall, once an innovative frontrunner for speedskating, is now trailing by a large distance, when it comes to sheer speed and world records. 

This was the reason that the Dutch professional ice skaters demanded better training facilities, to stay in synch with their contestants in countries with more modern indoor tracks. 

In order to facilitate these professional skaters, the Dutch ice skating union KNSB (the national union for speed skating, short tracking and figure skating) ordered a bid for a new, ‘third generation’,  indoor speedskating track, which can compete with Vancouver, Sochi and other very modern indoor tracks for many years to come. 

Three Dutch cities contested in this bid for the new speedskating hall: Heerenveen with Thialf 3.0, Zoetermeer with TranSportium and (my beloved city) Almere with Icedôme all challenged for the ‘national speedskating temple of The Netherlands. In May, 2013, all detailed bid books were received and all plans were defended by the organizing cities against the organizing KNSB and the Dutch Olympic committee NOC&NSF.

Days before the official winner would be presented by the KNSB, a report leaked to the press that Almere’s Icedôme would become the winner of the contest. In the eyes of the KNSB, Almere offered a winning combination for the national speedskating temple: 

  • Free training facilities for the professionals speedskaters;
  • Ample training and leisure possibilities: not only for amateur speedskaters, but also for short-trackers and figure skaters;
  • The complex is closely positioned to the Dutch national airport Schiphol;
  • It offers good possibilities for the organization of concerts and other large events: an important condition for future profitability;
  • A central position in The Netherlands with more than 8 milllion potential visitors within only one hour of driving
  • And last, but not least, the fully private financing, without the usage of public, "tax-payers’" money, where the other two contestants reputedly needed a fair share of public money and guarantees by the municipalities and provinces:
    • The large Dutch building company BAM warranted the building costs of €185 million for the Almere Icedôme;
    • The renowned American operator of sports and concert halls AEG (famous for initially organizing the planned 2011 tour of Michael Jackson) offered a long-term contract for the exploitation of this hall; 

Although the other contestants also had many things to their advantage, it became clear that Almere had brought the best offer. At the end of May 2013, directly after the news leaked to the press that Almere had won the contest, a tidal wave of protests broke out. 

Most of these protests came from angry, Frisian skaters and Frisian ‘nationalists’, who were outraged that ‘their’ Thialf skating hall had lost the contest.

Fair protestors pointed at the fact that Almere didn’t have an impressive skating history (as Almere is less than fifty years old, it doesn’t have an impressive history in anything - EL) and that Friesland laid in the heart of the Dutch speedskating tradition, with the Thialf speedskating hall and its world famous ‘eleven city’ skating tour. 

Some of these people also pointed at earlier, large-scale projects in Almere, which had not ended very successfully, like Omniworld. All things that are obviously true. 

However, there were also arrogant protestors, who were hitting way below the belt, and stated a.o. that Almere and Flevoland (the province of Almere) are bleak, boring and desolate places, where even the dead don’t want to be found. In their opinion, 'putting the national skating temple there would be an offense of every serious speedskater in The Netherlands'. Obviously, they forgot to mention that not every speedskater comes from Friesland and that many speedskaters from the south of The Netherlands don’t like the two hour drive to Friesland every training day; not even to mention the international speed-skaters.

The KNSB was clearly intimidated by the protestors. Besides that, it had a chairman, Doekle Terpstra, who had earlier spoken ‘off the record’, that he would do his best to keep the national speedskating temple in Friesland.

So although the winner initially had been perfectly clear, the KNSB decided nevertheless that it would postpone the decision with a few months to ‘go through the motions’ and scrutinize the three offers once more. They planned to do so with the help of official auditors. These would have to assess the feasibility of the three bidbooks.

Almere, who had contacts and contracts with the builder of the Icedôme BAM and exploiter AEG, was outraged about the postponement and brought the case to the Court of Justice for a civil summary proceedings. Less than a week ago, the Court ruled that the KNSB had to publish the definitive results of this contest within five days. This has not happened yet.

Today,  a good sportsfriend of mine, ‘John’ - obviously not his real name -, who is a real insider in this story, mentioned to me ‘off the record’ that the initiator of the Almere Icedôme had received a telephone call by the KNSB: Almere had definitely won the contest.

Although I have not double-checked this news ( I am not a professional journalist), I believe John in this, as he is a close insider to the topic.

What will happen now probably, is that the KNSB tomorrow will present the official news that Almere has indeed won the contest. Unfortunately, Zoetermeer and especially Heerenveen might try to commit character assassination on Almere, by ridiculizing this city and the province where it is and by trying moral blackmail towards the KNSB. 

On the other hand, I have little doubt that the KNSB must have to stand firm in this matter, as the Court of Justice has settled for a €500,000 non-compliance penalty, when the KNSB not respects the verdict.

The "low blows" by the Friesland lobby might distract from the fact that the Almere Icedôme offer at least seems the least risky for the Dutch tax-payers, as it is fully, privatedly funded, according to the plans.

I will later come back to this news, as I want to look at the risks and threats of this bold plan for the Icedôme in Almere. Like often with publicly/privately financed projects, there is a considerable risk for the municipalities involved (in this case Almere) that the private parties will not stick to their end of the deal. This could form a large financial risk for the Almere taxpayers after all.

To be continued…

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