Skating-crazy Dutch defy pandemic by taking to outdoor ice

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A meter teaches her daughter to skate on a rink in Doorn, Netherlands, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. With freezing temperatures forecast for more than a week in the Netherlands, ice fever is sweeping the nation, offering a welcome respite from grim coronavirus news while also creating a challenge for authorities trying to uphold social distancing measures. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

DOORN – A deep winter freeze gripping the Netherlands is reawakening the national obsession with skating on frozen canals.

With subzero temperatures forecast to last more than a week, ice fever swept the nation Tuesday, offering a welcome respite from grim coronavirus news while also creating a challenge for authorities trying to uphold social distancing rules.

People around the country were rummaging through attics and dusting off long-unused skates, while businesses that sharpen skate blades reported boom times.

Ice skating is a national wintertime passion in the Netherlands, with the country's spandex-clad elite athletes dominating Winter Olympic speedskating races in recent years. Amateurs of all ages eagerly await the Arctic conditions that allow them to take to the country's vast network of canals and waterways.

But with the country in a strict coronavirus lockdown, the prospect of a long-distance skating race in the northern province of Friesland being staged for the first time since 1997 remains remote at best.

The association that organizes the 11 Cities Tour over frozen canals and lakes said in January that “under the current coronavirus measures, it is not possible to organize" the near mythical event. Since then, authorities have not relaxed the measures beyond allowing elementary school students back into classrooms this week.

The chairman of the association poured more cold water on people's hopes Tuesday, noting just what a production the race normally involves.

“We're talking about a tour with 1--1.5 million spectators, 25,000 participants, thousands of volunteers and half of the Netherlands on the road,” Wiebe Wieling told national broadcaster NOS. “Every right-thinking person will realize that something like that is not possible” amid the pandemic.