The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, are coming to a close and we’ve seen heartwrenching disappointment but also records broken, comebacks from injuries, commentator bloops and dismissals, multiple wardrobe malfunctions, and new faces to cheer on—regardless of nationality. The spotlight has been on the world’s best athletes, creating a sense of community in a time when when it’s most needed. For Dutch Olympians, one of the most consistent, physical manifestations of a home-away-from-home has been Holland Heineken House, now in its 14th edition as the Netherland’s official national house. It’s become so much of a tradition that 22-year-old speed skater Esmee Visser blurted after winning her first-ever Olympic medal that she had dreamt the night before that she was being honored at the House.
We got to observe how the Dutch fete their heroes, as the Netherlands happened to win a different medal each of the two nights we visited the House. Family, friends and fans decked out in full-on orange are glued to the multiple screens streaming the events. Some of the freshest draft Heineken we’ve ever sipped (supposedly there’s a hint of banana when it’s fresh) is expertly poured by the staff, all flown in from the Netherlands. They’ve also imported bitterballen, a Dutch bar snack favorite—the soft, meat-stewy mixture inside the fried ball remains hot for a long time, so mouth burn is almost guaranteed as it’s hard to resist. Once the events are finished, a DJ transforms the bar into a dance club for a few hours, opening up the floor to visitors from all around the world including local Koreans, and then there’s live music to rev the crowd further. Squint and you might spot well-known figures like beloved international soccer coach Guus Hiddink or former Olympian Bob de Jong (who’s now coaching the Korean speed skating team). But it’s clear whose won a medal that night, because they’ll be on stage dancing to “Gangnam Style.”
One night, rookie speed skater Esmee Visser surprised even herself with a medal in the 5,000m—it just happened to be gold. “My life goal was to be in the Olympics,” she said the House. “It’s amazing that I achieved it this year—my goal was Beijing 2022, so now I have to set new goals.”
Why do the Dutch dominate in speed skating? (Every single one of their 16 current medals is in this event and short track.) It’s not because they skate to work over iced canals, as Katie Couric bizarrely suggested. “There is a great potential in the Netherlands as so many people skate. The competition is tough because there are so few spots on the Olympic team and lots of top athletes, they are used to dealing with the pressure,” former gold medal Olympian (and HHH host) Mark Tuitert tells CH. “Most of speed skating is a time trial. The pressure is immense and it’s totally on you. When the gun goes off, you have to deliver from the get-go. That makes it really hard: time can be your enemy or friend, there is no hiding.”
There’s truth to the fierce ultra-competition: Jorrit Bergsma, at one point, had considered becoming a Kazakhstan citizen in order to compete in the Vancouver Olympics, after failing to qualify for the Dutch team. Dutch-born skater Ted-Jan Bloemen, who sailed ahead of Bergsma in the 10,000m event, was in fact competing for Canada—he moved there in 2014 after feeling not fully supported in the Netherlands.
But House celebrations go further than just winners. Ghana-born, Netherlands-raised Akwasi Frimpong was pulled onto the stage and given a hero’s welcome after his run at the Olympics as Ghana’s first-ever skeleton athlete. Only much later did many people learn that he overcame legal status battles as an illegal immigrant to forge his own unique path to his dreams. “It’s crazy! I’m the guy who came last today, but I got cheered on like the guy who came first,” he tells CH. “I did not perform in the best of the world, but I was part of the best of the 30 in the world. I could have chosen to sit home but this is the path for me toward 2022. I don’t believe in the self-made man. I believe that in life, you have to surround yourself with like-minded people—I was lucky enough to find those people.”
He continues, “Immigration is a big issue. There are a lot of stereotypes. I was that person—I was for 30 years, an illegal immigrant. But one of the things that I mostly thought about, is that I did not want to be a victim. I did not want people to say—I did not want to go out there and become a victim. I had to push myself and I had to work hard. But like I said, you have to surround yourself with like-minded people, good people that will help build you up. You cannot just do it only by yourself. And I truly also wanted to come out there: I [went] from an illegal immigrant to Olympian. I also want to show President Trump and a lot of people out there that are actually blocking these [immigrants], to show them these people can be a great asset and great value. I think that people should be judged by their character—not by their race, color or anything like that.”
There’s still some more medals to be won before Closing Ceremonies, and there’s guaranteed to be a grand party at HHH for Dutch athletes. And perhaps, for some, that offers an extra push of motivation.
Images courtesy of Holland Heineken House