Everyday life in the Olympic city
"The Olympic city is a bit of an artificial world. The skating competition is like any other skating competition: it's the same people we're competing against, it's the same disciplines, and in many ways it's like a World Cup. But it's all the things around it that make it different and make it different. Stefan explains and elaborates:
China is doing it the Chinese way, and it's big and pompous. There are units of about 50 men walking around in military fatigues, marching in step. It's exciting to see an Olympic city from the inside in such a historic time as we are in now. But it's also a bit special. They've created a little mini-community here, about a kilometre in diameter. You're fenced in, and all you can see is the hotel and the arena. I, for one, have always loved taking a leisurely bike ride out to see the area. Then you typically see it for what it is and not for the artificial set-up that you are presented with. There's no opportunity for that here."
"I have about two daily training sessions. A workout on ice and then typically a bike workout or once in a while a strength workout. You could say the workout on ice has to be the highest quality one, and it's hard on ice skates to do a workout with quality beyond an hour almost. This is also why we take several training sessions, some of the more low intensity ones being on the bike to get the legs ready. The ones on the ice are more intense and quality training, you could say, where the others are more quantity."
What are your expectations for the race?
"At the last Olympics, I thought I excelled by making it to the final. Then when you get to the final, there are opportunities. Last time I rode with the cards I had in my hand, and after four years of course I want to finish in the final again. So if I get to the final, I hope to ride up to the level I think I have now. If the race suits me, I can race with the best in the world. That's what I'm hoping for and that's what I'm riding for.
A race that suits Stefan Due goes like this: the race must be a fast race and a hard race. Then it should preferably be a reduced group for a mass sprint. That would be the most perfect. I'm good when it's been hard and then there are many left who can't sprint anymore. Then I'll typically be one of the best there."
Denmark is represented by two speed skaters at the Winter Games in Beijing. Viktor Hald Thorup has already been on the ice, while Stefan Due will compete in his first race on 19 February. Even though the two Danes practice the same sport, they have very different strengths and preferences:
"My teammate, Viktor, and I are very different athletes. Viktor prefers to get out early. We'll each ride our semi-final and in the final we hope we'll both be standing - like we did four years ago. But it's difficult to get to the final. Last Olympics there were only three teams that had two in the final, everyone else was alone. So if it happens again, we can use each other a bit because we are different types."
Does being in this "closed society" affect you?
"I think when people watch skating, it's only when there are Olympics and they see a full stadium. But most of the halls we compete in are also the halls we train in, and there they are empty. At the same time, the halls are usually not very full. So in that way it doesn't feel so different. But you can feel when China wants to be pompous and has built a stadium for 12,000 people and they fill it up with 200 Chinese who have been pre-approved to sit on those stands. Then it feels extra empty. That's the case with many of the venues here, and of course it's different from previous Olympics. But it's not that different from our everyday lives in real life. And as soon as I compete, that's it. I have tunnel vision, and then you can't really see anything else anyway. So in that way it doesn't matter to me, although of course it's fun to race in front of lots of people.
What matters most to me is not whether there are 12,000 or 200 Chinese. It's more about who's sitting there. At the last Olympics, my mother was there. She could sit in the stands and I could take her into the Olympic city. My father wasn't there last time and we had talked about if I went to the Olympics again, he would come. So the fact that they can't be here is much harder for me."
Your brother, Philip, was also very close to making it to the Olympics. How come he didn't make it?
"We were both close to qualifying for this Olympics, but it was Viktor and I who got the two places. Philip and I had a discussion about him getting accreditation and coming into the Olympic city as an alternate, since he had Olympic claim time, and that he could be a reserve for either Viktor or I if one of us got injured or got corona. So it was very close that Philip also came along. But that will have to be in four years."
Stefan goes on to explain how qualifying for a Winter Olympics works:
"In the mass start, which I will be doing, we had qualified two people and that is the maximum. But then we also did a team pursuit, similar to track cycling, where we ride four at a time. On skates, the discipline is called Team Pursuit, where there are only three people racing. So for the World Cup, my brother, Viktor and I raced and we finished 10th in the world rankings. But we missed the Olympic qualification by six tenths. It's a long race, so six tenths are margins. So it hurt extra that we didn't end up with the dream we've had all our lives: that we could stand together at the Olympics as brothers. That would be unique.
The social life in the Danish camp and between the participants
As viewers of major sporting events, we often hear about the bonding that goes on off the pitch - whether in the national camp, within a discipline or across sports and nationalities. In Beijing, Denmark is fielding the largest-ever Olympic team at the Winter Games, but the pandemic has a community impact:
"Last time it was just the two curling teams we were with and they played a lot of games. There weren't many Danes. So it's a very strange experience for me to be at this Olympics where there are just Danish jackets everywhere. But we've stayed very isolated anyway. Of course it's a pity that we can't be so social.
It's always great to hear about other sports. You're talking to people who are nerds at what they do and they love what they do. It's always interesting to hear about things you don't know about from people who are really good at it."
You have resumed your studies during the Olympics, how can that be?
"I've taken the maximum amount of leave I could, so I had to start up again now. I need my SU to make it work in my life too. I have a bit of support - for example from Team Denmark. It can help me pay for training camps, competitions and equipment. But study and SU is still one of the pieces that I need to make it work, and I need all the pieces. Luckily it's only half term and it's online so I don't have to compromise too much on the sporting side.
Studying has always been one thing that has given me a bit more in my life than just sport. So it's a necessity as I need something to fall back on after my career. Because the day I finish speedskating, I have to find another way to have to the day and the road.
We have completely different conditions than for example the Norwegian or a Dutch skater, it's very different from the way we Danish speed skaters have to go."
Passion over economics
Following the conditions for Danish speedskaters and what he wants after the sport, Stefan talks about the relationship between passion and economy:
"I've always had to ask myself: Am I passionate enough about it to give it my all and keep going? It's never been a question of whether I even liked the sport and did it for the economy. It hasn't been an option. I've always loved the sport because that's what there's been to love."
"I think one of the good things that has come out of it is that I have no doubt that I'm doing this today because I love it. I don't feel like I have to compromise, make choices and prioritise because I enjoy the sport and everyday life in the sport. I think this has become very apparent during the pandemic, where some athletes have had their external motivation taken away by not having had matches and getting external recognition."
While Stefan puts his passion into words, he also stresses that the sport is an investment with both ups and downs on the curve:
"I've always been a very process-oriented athlete and I love to challenge myself and get to know myself better through my sport. I try to do my best because I feel that is what is most rewarding. But it's also hard. But that's what makes me feel so proud of myself when I succeed at things - like going to the Olympics. Because I know what I've put into it.
In elite sport, again, you're guaranteed to get out of it what you put into it. There, sport is just cynical. That was the feeling we were left with when six tenths separated us from an Olympic place and my brother didn't make the trip. Elite sport isn't just about dreams coming true. It's also small margins that don't always go your way. Where it can also just be hard and difficult and feel unfair. And sport is like that too."
But while sport can be unfair, the Danish Olympic athlete has no doubt that the downturns are life lessons:
"Sport puts things a bit on edge. These are universal ideas, and that's why I think there's something in elite sport that you can use for the rest of your life. The periods that have been the most difficult are also the ones that you will appreciate the most for the rest of your life. If you go through them and find out why you reacted that way and why it matters to you, there's a lot of learning in all the hard stuff."