By Simon Jennings
(Reuters) - The Dutch contingent headed for the Winter Olympics aim to top the speed skating medal table once again, but expecting them to repeat their dominance from Sochi four years ago is unrealistic, according to technical director Arie Koops.
The Netherlands won 23 medals, eight of them gold, at the last Winter Games, with Poland second on the table with just three, an outcome that prompted a review of the sport and introduction of rules to increase competition.
The 20-strong Dutch team heading to Pyeongchang has five defending gold medalists in Jorrit Bergsma (10,000m), Sven Kramer (5,000m, team pursuit), Ireen Wust (3,000m, team pursuit), Marrit Leenstra (team pursuit) and Jan Blokhuijsen (team pursuit).
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Jorien ter Mors will not defend her women's 1,500m and team pursuit titles having been selected to race in the 500m and 1,000m.
"Our ambition is to be the best skating country of the world," Koops told Reuters from the Dutch skating facility in Heerenveen. "In the medal classification of all countries we'd like to have position one.
"You could say in Sochi the impossible happened. We never thought about 23 medals and for sure I don't think now even about 23 medals. I think it's highly impossible."
Part of the reason is because their success caused a spike in demand for coaches from the Netherlands, a trend that could level the playing field slightly.
"There are more countries looking in the direction of hiring Dutch coaches and that's basically been since Sochi," said Bart Schouten, a Dutchman who has been working with the Canadian team for the past eight seasons.
"There's definitely an export of Dutch coaches going to different countries around the world to try to increase the international level of speed skating."
Japan, Germany, China and hosts South Korea have all brought in Dutch coaches to help their skaters, with the Japanese women's team in particular impressing in the past two seasons under Johan de Wit.
Bob de Jong, who won bronze in the 10,000m in Sochi, one of four events the Dutch swept, described the last Olympics as an aberration.
"Sochi was extreme. It was absolutely unreal," the 2006 Olympic champion told Reuters from Seoul, where he is helping to coach South Korea.
"The performance of the Netherlands was really good but other countries made some mistakes in preparing or were a little unlucky with the pairings.
"We were really surprised, you know. We were getting fast, but not unbelievably fast."
In Sochi, the Dutch swept the men's 500m, 5,000m and 10,000m, while in the women's 1,500m, they took the top four positions.
A few months after the Games, the sport's governing body (ISU) imposed restrictions on the number of entries from each country to "stimulate more countries to qualify".
"Nowadays it's not possible on the longer distances for one (country) to enter more than two skaters," said Alexander Kibalko, chair of the ISU's speed skating committee.
"So for the 5,000m ladies and 10,000m men, it's not possible to sweep all medals by one country."
Koops, who thinks the Dutch should get at least 12 medals in Pyeongchang, said the rules were also changed partly to accommodate the mass start event, which will make its Olympic debut next month.
"It's quite unusual that there's a difference between 500m, 1,000m, 1,500m and the 5,000m ladies and 10,000m," he said.
"On every distance you can compete with three people so why not at a longer distance? But it is what it is, you know."
The Dutch medal count may dip on the long track, but De Jong expects the country to make inroads in the short track events.
"In Sochi they took the first Olympic medal in short track," he said.
"I will say they will take three or four medals in short track skating now."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)