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Why Are the Dutch So Good at Speed Skating?

Getty Images
Getty Images

When Olympics broadcasters were predicting each nation's medal count, not many people thought the Netherlands would be battling for the lead. (They were in pole position 13 days in and, as of press time, they're tied for second.) Even more incredible, the Netherlands has accumulated 21 of its 22 medals in one sport: long-track speed skating. The lone non-long-track speed skating medal? Short-track speed skating.  

By taking 70 percent of all possible medals there are to collect in speed skating, the Netherlands’ performance is the most dominant by any nation in any Olympics discipline in Winter Olympics history.

How did they get so good?

Famous for being located below sea level and held up through a system of dikes, the Netherlands is a place with a low water table and many lakes and rivers. Additionally, the Netherlands is one of the most urbanized nations, and cities like Amsterdam and Delft rely heavily on canals for transportation. In the wintertime, the Dutch have for years skated long distances along those canals and frozen rivers to get around locally or even visit neighboring towns.

Proof of this tradition is the Elfstedentocht race (how often it's held depends on ice conditions; sometimes in consecutive years, sometimes with more than 20 years between contests). The 120-mile race runs around the perimeter of the Dutch province of Friesland and stops in 11 cities. It dates back to 1909, when it was an organized tour, although people were skating the course as far back as the 18th century. The King of the Netherlands himself completed the event in 1986.

The inaugural world speed skating championship in 1893 grew out of the Amsterdam Skating Club, and the competition only had two non-Dutch entrants. The event’s first all-around winner was Jaap Eden, who became one of the country’s most famous sports icons and one of Europe's first athletic superstars. It also helped his legend that he won the world cycling championship the following year and set many world records. Amsterdam’s Jaap Eden baan bears his name and was the country’s first artificial 400 meter ice rink. It's also one the world's most famous.

Why did the Dutch focus their love of ice skating specifically into competitive speed skating? Speed Skating World editor and Dutch speed skating enthusiast Irene Postma explained in an interview with the International Business Times that the national love for the sport dates to the 1968 Olympics. It was then that two charismatic Dutch speed skaters, Ard Schenk and Kees Verkerk, captured the nation's imagination with medal-winning performances just as the sport was being televised. It wasn't just their athleticism, but also their sportsmanship that inspired the Dutch.

An example of how big the sport is in the Netherlands is that U.S. speedskater Shani Davis is virtually unknown on the streets of his native Chicago during non-Olympic years, but he's considered a hero whenever he goes to Holland.

Today, Holland has eight different professional speed-skating clubs and over twenty long-track ice rinks (the standard size for Olympic competition), while the U.S. has only six such tracks and no professional clubs. Don't expect the Dutch to lose their competitive advantage any time soon.

Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.


According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.


Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.


Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.


Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.


Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.


Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.


Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.


Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.


Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.


Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]


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