Irene Scouten gave the mighty Dutch a gold medal in the first speedskating event of the Beijing Games, breaking a 20-year-old Olympic record in the women's 3,000 meters on Saturday. Skating in the last of 10 pairs, Schouten turned in a blazing final lap to post the winning time of 3 minutes, 56.93 seconds. That broke the previous Olympic mark of 3:57.70, set by Germany's Claudia Pechstein at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
In a fitting bookend to the event, Pechstein skated in the opening pair to become the oldest female athlete in Olympic history at 49. The German finished last — more than 20 seconds behind the winner. Italy's Francesca Lollobrigida, pushing Schouten all the way in the final pair, held on for the silver in 3:58.06. The three-time Olympian is the great-niece of 94-year-old actress Gina Lollobrigida, who was an international star in the 1950s and '60s. The bronze went to Canada's Isabelle Weidemann in 3:58.64.
Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic, the winner of six Olympic medals including three golds, held the top spot with two pairs to go but failed to make the podium. She wound up fourth in 4:00.34. Defending champion Carlijn Achtereekte of the Netherlands crossed the line in 4:02.21 — exactly 3 seconds off her gold medal-winning time from four years ago. She finished seventh this time, one spot ahead of the third Dutch skater, Antoinette de Jong. The Dutch didn't come close to duplicating their medal sweep in the 3,000 at the 2018 Games, but Schouten made sure it was golden start for the world's speedskating powerhouse.
The opening event of the Olympic speedskating competition was held before a sparse, quiet crowd at the dazzling National Speed Skating Oval, better known as the "Ice Ribbon" for its distinctive outer facade. To Mia Manganello-Kilburg, an American who finished 19th, it hardly felt like an Olympics. "Not at all. Not at all," she said. "It felt like just another training race. You definitely miss that crowd, for sure." The 12,000-seat Ice Ribbon was the only new venue built at the Olympic Green for this year's Beijing Games, constructed on the northern edge of the park at the site of the field hockey and archery fields for the 2008 Summer Games.
Pechstein became just the second athlete — and first woman — to compete in eight Winter Games. Her career includes nine Olympic medals and a two-year doping ban, which she continues to fight in court. She tied Japanese ski jumper Noriaki Kasai for the most Winter Olympics. Pechstein, who turns 50 two days after the end of the Beijing Games, finished in 4:17.16 but still seemed pleased with her performance. The German smiled and waved toward the fans as she received a smattering of applause. The Dutch have dominated at the last two Olympics, though there is expected to be more variety on the medal podium this time around.
Japan, Canada, the Russian team, China, the United States and Italy are eager to take a crack at the orange-clad powerhouse, which also was denied having its passionate, flag-waving fans in the stands because of the host country's COVID-19 restrictions. Four years ago in Pyeongchang, the Netherlands claimed seven golds and 16 medals overall — 10 more than any other country. At the 2014 Sochi Games, they won 23 of the 36 available medals, including eight golds. The Americans haven't won an individual speedskating medal since 2010, though the World Cup success of Erin Jackson, Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia provides hopes they'll break the drought in Beijing.