In 1895, Jaap Eden, a Haarlem-based horticultural trainee became the first, and so far only, person to claim a world championship of two different sports in the same year – in skating and cycling. But Jaap was more than just his results; he was a man who was one of the first media sporting stars; a man who challenged the fine line between amateur and professional; and one of the first Dutch sportsmen to take advantage of the possibilities of mass communication, transport and advertising.

Jacobus Johannes “Jaap” Eden was born in Groningen in 1873. After the death of his mother, he moved to live with his grandparents nearby the city of Haarlem. For a young man interested in sport in the 1870s and 1880s, Haarlem was the place to be. In addition to the proximity to the sand dunes and forests, where Jaap would spend much of his time exercising, Haarlem was filled with new sporting opportunities for young men. In 1879, the 14-year-old ‘Pim’ Mulier and friends established the first Dutch football club – Haarlemsche Football Club. Mulier is often seen as the father of Dutch sport and his involvement can be seen in many organisations, publications and competitions. Amongst other things he was involved in establishing the Haarlemsche Lawn Tennis Club (1885), Het Sportblad sporting periodical (1888), the Nederlandsche Voetbal en Athletiek Bond (Dutch Football and Athletics Association) (1889), the International Skating Union (1892) and the Elfstedentocht (a skating race around the 11 Friesian cities) (1909). In 1888, Mulier also finished second in the first ever long distance skating race; a 30km event between Haarlem and Leiden.


First in that race was Mulier’s friend and legendary skater Klaas Pander. Pander became Eden’s coach after seeing the young man skate. At 15, Eden was already beating more experienced skaters and by 1891, at the age of 17, he was racing international opponents at the Amsterdamsche IJsclub. In 1893, the first skating World Championship was held at the same location and Eden won 3 of the 4 races to claim the sport’s first world title. As Jaap’s triumph was celebrated in Haarlem, the president of a local cycling club invited him to see if his skating form would transfer to the bike in the summer months; it did almost immediately, as he won a race in Arnhem later that year.


In the 1890s sporting reports were rare in Dutch daily newspapers, yet mentions of Jaap Eden’s races, travels or celebrations began to appear more regularly. Telegrams about Jaap’s performances would fly across Europe (and later North America) back to sporting periodicals in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. On the advertising pages, his name was linked to cigars, chocolate bars, gin, pipes, bicycle equipment and skating shoes. Some shops used his fame to construct special window displays offering the chance to try and buy the equipment that had made Jaap the best. But Eden’s links to business were not without controversy. As often happened in early European sport it was coming into contact with English opponents which caused problems. In the Netherlands, distinctions between amateurism and professionalism were somewhat blurred in a number of sports, but with the growth of international competition many Dutch sporting organisations adopted English definitions of amateurism in the hope of attracting English competitors or sending their own participants abroad.

In 1894, Eden fell foul of British amateur regulations when he was denied permission to race in the Open Championships in Birmingham because he had promoted the Whitworth bicycle in adverts. Excluded from the competition, Eden still lined up at the start of the qualifying race and proceeded to catch up the peloton and to outsprint them. He was permitted to race in the final outside of competition, in which he finished second after sitting up when comfortably leading. While his name would not appear in the official results, he was heralded as ‘the best that had ever been seen’ at the championships in the British press. Questions about Eden’s links to business continued in 1895 and he was informed that from 1896 he would be considered a professional. But for 1895 he was granted an exemption and this proved invaluable as he not only regained his skating World Championship but also won the amateur 10km cycling World Championship to become the first, and only, dual sport world champion in the same calendar year.


After winning another skating World Championship at the start of 1896, Eden hung up his skates, abandoned his training as a bulb grower and became a full time professional track cyclist. Now a fully-fledged professional, Eden was part of the increasingly competitive battles between bicycle manufactures and in 1896 he raced on the Humber safety bicycle. Later that year, after a defeat to Edmond Jacquelin, his spurned manufacture tactfully used the same advertising pages which they had used to laud Eden to point out that he had been beaten by a man on a Whitworth bike. Within Dutch cycling, the increasingly competitive and professional nature of riders, particularly backed by the manufacturers, caused tensions and a challenge to the amateur codes. In 1896, the previous ban on professional riding was removed as it became clear that the concept of amateurism in cycling was hard to define and harder to enforce.


After turning professional, Eden moved to Paris, the centre of the fin-de-siècle cycling world, and met with initial success. No doubt the exuberant Jaap enjoyed Paris, as he had enjoyed the sporting life before. At the skating European Championships of 1894, he failed to appear at the start of the 500m race in Hamar, later citing problems with the wind; others suggested he was in his hotel room with a local chambermaid. Soon his self-confessed love of smoking and drinking caught up with him. He pulled out of events either because of sickness or a lack of form. As prize money in Europe began to disappear he looked to the sums offered across the Atlantic. But this was no solution. He retired in 1902 and then again in 1904; without sport Jaap appeared lost, undertaking a series of unsuccessful jobs in a range of enterprises. He spent time in a clinic for his alcohol problem and in 1925, at the age of 51, Jaap died. Like so many modern sportsmen who followed him, he struggled with alcohol, money and life after competition.

In the Netherlands, Eden’s name has adorned the trophy for the Dutch sportsperson of the year since 1972. The first artificial ice-track in the Netherlands, opened in Amsterdam in 1961, also bears his name. While his successes on the skating and cycling tracks were unique, off the track Eden was part of the development of a mass sporting culture. He was one of the highest earning Dutch sportsmen of his time and a man so poor that his family had to sell his trophies to pay for his funeral. He was an amateur and a professional, often at the same time. Eden played a part in the development of sport reports in the Dutch media and he was one of the first to fulfil the new role of the sport star as an advertising device to promote consumer goods. Jaap was able to take advantage of technological advances in communication, travel, and the bicycle, and to combine them with a public and (increasingly mass) media desire for stories. If he was the first Dutch sport icon, then perhaps Jaap Eden was also the first to experience the opportunities and pitfalls of being a very modern sportsman.

Article © Nick Piercey