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Ice not thick enough for Dutch skating marathon

THE HAGUE, Netherlands - Organizers of the near-mythical Eleven Cities Tour dealt 16,000 skaters and the nation at large a crushing blow Wednesday when they decided the ice was too thin to hold the 125-mile (200-kilometer) skating marathon for the first time in 15 years.

"We can't let the tour go ahead at the moment," Frisian Eleven Cities Association chairman Wiebe Wieling told a nationally televised news conference. "We're not proud of this decision. This is the decision we had to make."

The nationally televised announcement to forego a chance to stage the revered "Elfstedentocht" for the first time since 1997 came after chiefs of the 22 separate stretches of canals, rivers and lakes that make up the tour ruled the ice was too dangerous.

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Wieling said the decision "was very difficult, but unanimous."

"Safety is, for us, just as important as the enormous desire to stage the race," he said. The skating-crazy nation had desperately hoped for a weekend race, since a thaw is expected to set in Sunday.

The association says it needs ice six inches (15 centimeters) thick over the entire track before they can give the green light for the thousands of skaters to start the race before dawn. In some places along the route it was only three inches (8 centimeters). Wieling did not entirely rule out the possibility that the race could still be staged this year.

With sub-zero temperatures gripping the Netherlands for more than a week, race organizers mobilized a small army of volunteers to help prepare frozen waterways for the tour.

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Skating fans drove from as far away as Amsterdam 120 miles (80 kilometers) to the south to help scrape away snow that was hindering ice growth by acting as an insulating blanket. Earlier Wednesday, a group of 50 soldiers in camouflage fatigues shoveled snow along a possible alternative route in case ice on part of the traditional track was too weak.

"We want to do our bit for this national party," Gen. Hans van der Louw told national broadcaster NOS. To no avail.

The will-it-or-won't-it-happen guessing game about the race is an obsession every winter when temperatures dip below freezing in this country of nearly 17 million.

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With bucolic canals crisscrossing cities, villages and endless flat fields, and professional skating teams churning out Olympic champions seemingly at will, speed skating is second only to soccer as the national pastime.

The already intense interest was ratcheted up even further this week when the Frisian Eleven Cities Association announced it was doing all it could to clear the way for the race.

Had it happened, up to 2 million spectators were expected to brave the bitter cold in the northern province of Friesland to line frozen canals, rivers and lakes, and cheer on competitors in the invitation-only race.

A major part of the event's allure is that it is entirely dependent on weather conditions.

The race, which is only open to members of the Frisian Eleven Cities Association, also showcases the stark beauty of Friesland, a flat expanse of land largely below sea level, buttressed by dikes and dotted with lakes, historic farmhouses and windmills.

Despite uncertainty all week, preparations had already gotten into full swing.

Public transportation companies also were planning how to move the masses of spectators, flag makers were churning out commemorative flags, and a distillery in Friesland was working around the clock to produce the Berenburg fiery gin-like drink favored by skating fans as a warming tonic.

Even national carrier KLM got in on the act, announcing it would let competitors rebook tickets for free if the race coincides with their flight.

"As a typically Dutch company, KLM has very warm feelings for the Elfstedentocht," director Peter Hartman said in a statement.

The association's "Ice Master" Jan Oostenbrug advised skating fans depressed by the decision to get out and make the most of the preparations.

"We are all going skating in Friesland," he said.