By Simon Jennings
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - The Dutch showed they are still the dominant force in speed skating by winning seven of the 14 gold medals at the Gangneung Oval during the Winter Olympics, but competition is more intense than it was four years ago.
At the Sochi Games in 2014, the Netherlands won 23 of 36 medals in the long track events, including eight gold medals.
In Korea, Japan's women skaters challenged the Dutch supremacy, with Nao Kodaira taking gold in the 500 meters to become the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic title in a speed skating event at the Winter Games.
"We still know the Dutch skaters are stronger than us, but we are coming," Kodaira said after finishing with silver in the 1,000m, but even she could not have predicted how well Japan would do.
Six of Japan's 13 podium finishes came in speed skating events, including three of its four gold medals, and all its medals in the sport were won by women skaters.
Kodaira also gave the Games one of its most endearing images when she embraced South Korea's silver medalist Lee Sang-hwa after the 500m and the pair carried their country's flags together in celebration.
Nana Takagi and her sister Miho combined with Ayaka Kikuchi and Ayano Sato to stun defending champions the Netherlands in the women's team pursuit, while Kodaira set an Olympic record in winning the 500m.
Nana Takagi also won the women's mass start on the last day.
Norway returned to the top of the men's podium for the first time in decades with Havard Lorentzen winning the 500m and the trio of Havard Bokko, Simen Spieler Nilsen and Sverre Lunde Pedersen taking gold in the team pursuit.
The Netherlands had started off with a sweep of the women's 3,000m medals and then won the first five golds on offer until Ted-Jan Bloemen of Canada won the men's 10,000m.
Bloemen's victory ruined Sven Kramer's hopes of winning his favorite event for the first time at the Olympics.
Yet Kramer, who won his third consecutive gold medal in the 5,000m and Ireen Wust, who ended her career as the sport's most successful Olympian with 11 medals, can leave Korea with their heads held high.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)