Exactly where and when the roots of speed skating where laid is impossible to trace. In many places in Europe, in particular in Scandinavia, Northern Europe and the Netherlands animal bones of cow and horse have been found dating back a millennium. These were used to move around on the ice and travel during the winter using the rivers, canals and lakes.
The history of speed skating begins with the invention of the skate made of timber with an iron runner. This made it possible to make the specific skating movement that provides speed. It is generally assumed that this iron skates were born in the Netherlands somewhere in the 11th / 12th century. While it has been found that skating competitions were already held in the 14th century. It is not until the 16th century that people started seeing skating as fun or sport. In Norway, King Eystein I, boasted of his skills racing on ice. In Scotland a better version of the iron bladed skate was developed in 1592. However, it was King James II that popularized the sport in England, when he returned from exile in the Netherlands. It was quickly taken up by the working people in the Fen-district, an area in Cambridgeshire with comparable climatic conditions to the Netherlands and continued to grow in popularity in Scotland where the first official skating club – The skating club of Edinburgh – was born in 1642. In 1763 the world saw its first officially recognized speed skating race. It was held on the Fens in England. A message from that area is available in the British Magazine of 1763 showing that John Lamb and Feorge Fawn competed after a bet to skate as fast as possible from Wisbech to Whittlesea – a distance of 15 miles. Lamb won in 46 minutes.
The competitions in the Fen-district were disorganized and had many epiphenomena’s as lotteries. Because of that, in 1879 the National Skating Association (later to become NISA) was established. It was the first skating association in the world and was set up on Saturday 1 February 1879 by a number of prominent men of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire
The newly-formed National Skating Association held their first one-and-a-half-mile British professional championship at Thorney in December 1879. There was a field of 32, including former champions Turkey Smart and Tom Watkinson. Fish Smart beat Knocker Carter in the final. His reward was a badge, a sash and a cash prize, given as an annual salary in installments in order to encourage the champion to “keep himself temperate”. The NSA also established an amateur championship, which was held for the first time at Welsh Harp, London, in January 1880, and won by Frederick Norman, a farmer’s son from Willingham. The professionals were laborers who skated for cash prizes; the amateurs were gentlemen who skated for trophies.
Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, people began touring the waterways connecting the 11 cities of Friesland, a challenge which eventually led to the Elfstedentocht – the most famous long distance skating race in the world and one that it still going today. The Netherlands came back to the fore in formal competition speed skating in the 1880’s adopting the British system of timed races over a set distance and organized their first national championships (held in 1887 in the Dutch town Slikkerveer and won by the Englishman George Goodman Tebbutt). The influence of the British NSA led to the creation of a Dutch skating association which later became the KNSB – possibly the most powerful and successful long track association today. A few years later Netherlands organised the very first world championships. These were held in Amsterdam and included participants from Russia, the United States and Great Britain.
In 1892 the ISU (International Skating Union) was born in Scheveningen in the Netherlands by 15 national representatives and became the first international winter sports federation. Subsequently, by the start of the 20th century, skating and indeed speed skating had come into its own as a major popular sporting activity.
Initial competitions were held over a variety of distances but the ISU standardised the distances (500m, 1500m, 5000m and 10000m) and the track size (400m) soon after its inception. The ISU also standardised the competition format with skaters starting in pairs, each to their own lane, and changed lanes for every lap to ensure that each skater completed the same distance. This is what is now known as long track speed skating and the basic layout and rules have hardly changed since.
The NSA hosted its first official international ice skating competition under ISU rules in Birmingham in 1899. Until 1990, when an independent society was formed, the NSA was also the UK’s governing body of roller skating. As a consequence of the segmentation, the NSA became the NISA (National Ice Skating Association), the headquarters of which are now based at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham.
Long track speed skating became an Olympic sport in 1916 and moved to indoor rinks in the 1970s. The UK can boast the oldest ever speed skating Olympian - the Fens skater, Albert Tebbit - who competed in 1924 at the age of 52 managing a respectable 20th place in the 5000m.
After early successes in the sport, disgruntlement between the NSA and the Fens riders, together with changing economic conditions, two world wars and a series of mild winters, the UKs participation in the sport dwindled. Despite this the UK managed to field a mens team at every Olympics between 1948 and 1992. When the move to indoor tracks came in the 1970s, it was not taken up in the UK and the sport fell further from the popular forefront. During the 1970s and 1980s the sport was mainly kept alive by the efforts of Glen Henderson(from AYR, SCOTLAND), a multi-millionaire car dealer and former speed skater who supported Scottish Speed Skating during the 1970's and 1980's. Glen employed the services of one of the top junior long track coaches of the time, Leen Pfrommer (who later became the Dutch National "Jong Oranje" Junior Long Track Coach) and skaters at that time spent several weeks each winter season training and competing in the Netherlands and Germany with the Dutch team.
Too bad that the once popular speed skate culture in England almost died.
With some smaller indoor ice rinks, short track and figure skating became the more popular forms of skating for the Britons. However, when there is natural ice the people in the “Fenlands” still speed skate. Like in 2010, covered in a video-report by The Guardian.
Given the history it is time to bring England back on track and return to the top with long track speed skating and it is highly appropriate that we are again doing this in co-operation with the longtrack skaters of the Netherlands with whom we can trace back our co-operation and competition for nearly 300 years.
1) Handboek Wedstrijdschaatsen, ISBN90-74252-73-7
2) Schaatsen.nl, artikel Marnix Koolhaas dd 12-11-12
3) Eerste titelstrijd in 1887 in Slikkerveer, Marnix Koolhaas, 03-11-11