Please cite this article as:
Derks, M. Competition, Sportification and Dutch Decency: Sport Ambiguities in the Netherlands in the Long Twentieth Century, In Piercey, N. and Oldfield, S.J. (ed), Sporting Cultures: Global Perspectives (Manchester: MMU Sport and Leisure History, 2019), 23-42.
ISBN paperback 978-1-910029-49-7
Competition, Sportification and Dutch Decency: Sport Ambiguities in the Netherlands in the Long Twentieth Century
In 1892, the fervent Dutch-American newspaper De Volksvriend published an article on the nation’s future. Challengingly, it sketched a world in which not economic prosperity, the army or great intellectual achievements would define ‘the glory of the Netherlands’, but sport: ‘Imagine that the glory of our country, the national glory of old Netherlands, lies on the sports field. Our men are the fastest rowers, our boys the best cyclists, our speed skaters stand out compared to foreigners’. For the wise, it was obvious that the anonymous author was exaggerating. Through this parody, he aimed to criticize and ridicule the growing and disproportionate late-nineteenth century public attention for sport, hoping to bring his audience’s attention back to more serious domains of life.
Yet, more than a century later, this once dystopian vision in fact seems to have become reality. Media campaigns from the Dutch Olympic Committee and Sport Federation (NOC*NSF), the overall coordinating sports organization that also functions as the Dutch Olympic and Paralympic Committee, certainly seem to suggest this. ‘Zo doen we dat’ – Dutch for ‘this is how we do this’ – is their new slogan. It was introduced in 2017 to promote the athletes of ‘Team NL’ and their achievements. To counter increasing difficulties in getting finances for Olympic missions on top of diminishing national funding, the brand name ‘Team NL’ had been launched via a 1-million-euro campaign a few years earlier, hoping to attract new commercial funding but also suggesting a connection between vigorous corporate identity and Dutchness – despite it being copied from the British Olympic Association and ‘Team USA’. A digital portal and connected social media displaying all news on Olympic athletes and their daily lives were part of it.
Team NL and the way they are doing things have become successful slogans that are being used during every championship, expressing unabashed pride of yet another medal for ‘our’ athletes and of ‘we, the Dutch’ as such. ‘Team NL fight for the Netherlands, inspire the Netherlands and make the Netherlands proud’ its website says. In addition, by continuously publicly referring to an ‘us’, meaning the attractive family of sport and even suggesting national identity, the semantics go beyond actual sporting achievements. They publicly announce: this is how we, the Dutch, do things. We perform, we crush our opponents, we are successful. ‘You represent a special sporting country’, chef de mission Maurits Hendriks said to Team NL before departing for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, although he did not specify what this specialty was.
Although there is criticism and one can question the actual depth of popular national identification with sporting representatives, on a symbolic cultural level it is hard to miss. Framing successful athletes as national heroes and role models is a way of ‘making up’ people, as philosopher Ian Hacking and social scientist Davide Sparti have characterized it. This categorical identity is being reproduced in social loops and affects society at large. Not only do athletes serve as key-figures in sport participation programs directed at inactive citizens, their repetitive honouring serves as a one of the last unifying ceremonies in an otherwise divided public and political landscape. ‘We’ send our athletes to represent our country at far away Olympics and the heroes’ return is broadcast live on Dutch television on prime time. Upon this return, we bestow them with national honour: since the successful Sydney Olympics of 2000, they are accompanied by military jet fighters when entering Dutch airspace. Then, the athletes are officially welcomed by the prime minister and members of his cabinet, who have declared that becoming a stable international ‘top 10 country’ in sport is a national goal for which extra budget is available. ‘Elite sport has become an affair of the state in the Netherlands’, a critical reporter stated.
To elaborate further on the space-changing role of sport in the Netherlands, one could also look at another example of symbolic national honouring. Golden medallists receive a royal award, a so-called ‘lintje’. This award represents a symbolical recognition for personal and special merit for society and is a very outstanding honour, which most people will never receive during their lifetime, despite their merit. Since 1998, when then Crown Prince William Alexander became a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), over two hundred athletes have received a royal award, greater than 50 percent more than in the previous ninety years. In the past, however, comparable public honouring was limited to the sphere of the military. Whilst between 1815 and 2017, over 21,000 military received an honorary medal, that seems to have become a relic of the past. Since 1990, only three such medals have been pinned on. Sport has definitely replaced the military when it comes to national pride and identification.
Dutch royalty, the symbolic head of state, in any case energetically embrace sport. Now King William Alexander and his wife, Queen Maxima, are keen fans, present at international tournaments and receive Olympic medallists at their home. The champions preferably go there on typical Dutch bikes, a triumphal march of proud, unfaltering and conquering Dutch, mostly blond and pretty and excelling in so-called ‘national’ water sports like speed skating, swimming, sailing and rowing. This is what success looks like, these pictures say, these people represent the glory of the Netherlands.
To sum up, the unimaginable irony of 1892 has become a very distinct twenty-first-century reality. Sporting heroes have been ‘made up’ to represent national pride, elite sport is being supported by the government for reasons of international prestige, recognition and also domestic benefits. In addition to offering a feel-good factor, sport also represents well-being. The state is constantly summoning up its citizens to adopt an active lifestyle in order for them to be regarded as responsible members of society. Yet, despite the impression of historical continuity that campaigns have suggested, these are rather recent developments. For decades, sport was a debated issue in the Netherlands. Despite growing participation and cultural importance, competition and public displays of physical sportive activity were topics of a fierce public debate that deemed this as unhealthy, indecent, against religion or at best as youthful frivolity. The state did its best to keep sport at a distance, while the royal House of Orange only gradually warmed up towards mass sports.
This chapter sketches the developments that changed this once ambiguous disposition into a public discourse in which sport has been reframed as a public and even state issue. My premise is that the Dutch structure of pillarization, founded on confessional and ideological subcultures, and the broader consequences of its demise during the 1960s have played a decisive role in this reconceptualization. Based on literature, brochures, published memoires, newspapers and sport magazines, I focus on both sociocultural and political contexts that influenced the development of sport and particularly its public and political framing. I distinguish five stages: the beginnings of organized sport at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century; the impact of ideological and confessional pillarization during the inter-war years; the impact of World War II on institutionalization; governmentalization in the late 1960s, evolving into politicization from the 1980s onwards.
Late-nineteenth century sport and the order of the pupil
It was not until the last decades of the nineteenth century that the contours of modernity began to take shape in the Netherlands. Although it was the third colonial power in Europe, up until then the country had predominantly been rural and small-scaled. Dominant cultural values were conservatively bourgeois, based on a so-called natural order of class, religion and gender distinctions. Spiritual values, decency and being well mannered – if only for the sake of appearances – were held in high regard. Due to industrialization, flourishing trade and growing material prosperity thanks to colonial profit, this order began to change. Cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, began to expand, with others following suit. Education, public transport and means of communication increased, the latter including national and regional press. Within this context, a new cultural vibe began to resonate that historian Auke van der Woud typifies as material, visual and physical. The allure of modernity, mass production and mass consumption disrupted the old order. Part of this new vibe was sport.
Up until then, physical play, ball games, rowing, skating or running for money by no means were unknown in the Netherlands. In his voluminous De volksvermaken, published in 1871, Jan ter Gouw listed numerous examples. Also, German and Swedish inspired gymnastics played an important role in school curricula as did the military; a cooperation of physical education teachers had been founded in 1863. These all echoed the dominant order. British organized and regulated sports, however, were something new. Sport sociologist Ruud Stokvis strikingly typifies sport as ‘the order of the pupil’, not only because its origins can be found within private schools and semi-organized clubs of young men, but also because the first cricket, football or cycle clubs symbolized modernity and its new order. Although modern sport was as gendered and class-based as society at large, it did rearrange certain cultural values. Early sport photos are a case in point. Whether they showed pupils of public school Noorthey near The Hague, players of the Haarlem Football Club (initiated by Pim Mulier who had picked up football in England), or the boyish young men that established the first cycling club Immer Weiter, all show young men posing in casual attitudes, dressed in a sporty way, in loose trousers and shirts and with fashionable caps. Getting good grades and becoming a pillar of society were not their goals, but scoring great goals, becoming a skilful player or covering more miles than last week. This attitude ran counter to the dominant bourgeois values of restraint and order, which Stokvis calls the ‘order of the teacher’.
In due time, their sport enthusiasm spread to cities throughout the country. Sport in the Netherlands developed from below, through the private initiatives of citizens who established clubs and associations, regulating and coordinating competitions. Local governments only hesitantly facilitated and – much later – also stimulated this activity. Sport was promoted by actors who engaged with modernity, such as entrepreneurs of urban warehouses, trading companies, or factory owners. For them, sport signalled progress, new internationalism, and new management. Tellingly, Abraham Dudok de Wit, a factory owner, colonial trader and avid sport organizer was even nicknamed the ‘minister of sport’. The brothers Philips, who owned one of the fastest growing factories of the country in the south, understood the value of sport for corporate image and company morale. They were the first to build a stadium with company money, the Philips Sport stadium, and have their own football team. Anton Philips regularly talked about his business in sport metaphors. Furthermore, the military, who felt the need to build up resilience, initiated numerous sporting activities that developed into long-lasting sport participation. Last but not least, informal sporting contacts between friends, young men from the same neighbourhood or offices, often sowed the seeds of what became official clubs.
However, from the start this new order also met firm resistance. An anti-sport discourse is discernible from the late nineteenth century onwards and persisted throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Sometimes it was directly aimed at sport as a reprehensible or even dangerous activity, then sport was used to ventilate concerns about societal developments at large, and sometimes these motives blended. Resistance first came from the bourgeois establishment, who resented the upheaval of their order. They tended to blame modernity as such or the interference of foreign trends and tried to counterbalance these by stressing tradition and respectability, based on the importance of the mind over the body. A case in point were articles in respectable opinion magazines like De Groene Amsterdammer that warned its readers about American students’ mentality who allegedly only cared for sport while neglecting their future. ‘Studying has become a side issue’, it alarmingly said to warn against similar practices in the Netherlands. Next to this, existing anti-British sentiments were fuelled by sport, as the image of the latter was that it was a British invention. England was stereotyped as a sport-crazed country, ‘a nation where the peer, the philosopher and the soldier are sportsmen’. Such tendencies allegedly spelled danger. Illustrative were the well-read booklets of Amsterdam physician Evart van Dieren who explicitly warned against the ‘English danger’ or the ‘English disease’ called sport. The fact that his and other warnings particularly aimed at sports for women or professional boxing and cycling indicates the gendered and class-based of this discourse next to its anti-modern angle.
Most directly anti-sport were gymnastic teachers who literally defended their ‘order of the teacher’. Educated in German or Swedish systems they wanted physical activity to be about communal exercise, education and installing mental qualities instead of play, competition and records. Their annual meetings and conferences were saturated with tirades against the superficiality of sport. Where these teachers engaged with the military, nationalist feelings were never far away, evoking anti-British sentiments caused by the South-African Boer Wars. British resilience was both feared and loathed.
A third group of resisters consisted of intellectuals who resented growing public and media attention for sport from the turn of the twentieth century onward. They, too, felt a shift in hierarchy: from public appreciation of high culture, featuring the spiritual, towards mass events and bodily achievements. Indicative is the famous Dutch writer Louis Couperus, whose novels were set in typical bourgeois settings in The Hague and the Dutch East Indies. He noticed a decrease in attention for his books, while simultaneously every Monday morning his newspaper was filled with match reports. It made him exclaim: ‘as a writer, I’m jealous of every football player, of every good player, but also of every mediocre and every bad player. Oh, to be twenty years old, and to play football, and to read about every kick and save in the newspapers. Not to be ignored any longer’.
Sport and pillarization, 1914-1940
All these sentiments were also present in the second phase of sport development in the Netherlands, but became overwhelmed by a religious discourse. As a result of modernity’s disturbing consequences for traditional relations from the turn of the twentieth century onwards, social and political structures became increasingly dominated by religious and ideological rhetoric. Particularly, emancipating Catholics and socialists began to structure their own milieu as a defensive weapon against modernity, the Protestants and Liberals. Even when they were entering the social mainstream and began to enjoy political power, civil society was divided into several contending segments or ‘pillars’. Although historians have recently debated the role of rhetoric within the pillarization process, its societal impact was hard to miss.
For sport, this implied three things. On the one hand, it benefitted from this system and because each pillar had a high degree of organization, new cultures like sport were appropriated. Therefore, it led to an increase in Catholic, Social-Democrat, Jewish and Protestant sport clubs and thus contributed to the development of organized sport as a mass phenomenon in the inter-war years. However, this heavily confessional and ideological sportification also hampered the development of an open sport system. All pillarized clubs aimed at advocating their subculture’s strength. Ideas and practices referring to Muscular Catholicism, Socialism and Judaism all existed alongside each other. Ideologically, playing for ‘the other team’ was not done, although in reality it regularly occurred, particularly when other clubs offered more sporting potential. Despite the latter, liberal sport associations heavily criticized this systematic fragmentation of the Dutch sport landscape. In return, their criticism met fierce resistance from confessional and ideological sport organizations who claimed the right to be their own boss.
A third consequence of pillarization was the fact that a substantial confessional and ideological anti-sport sentiment arose that aligned with an antimodern discourse. Whether stern Calvinists, rigid Catholics or critical Social-Democrats, sport and the attraction it held for the masses again became the object of concern and agitation. Confessional critics wrote about ‘sport mania’ as a quasi-religion. They compared it to pagan Greek and Roman physical culture and perceived sport as an attack on Sunday rest, common decency and – particularly when it came to women – modesty. Sport spelled a threat for family life and also meant meeting people from outside one’s own circle, which could lead to false ideas. For socialists, competitive sport echoed the pitfalls of capitalism. All feared for their youth, who allegedly thought of nothing but sport. More moderate views still held similar antimodern and religious traits. In Homo Ludens (1938) as well as In the shades of tomorrow (1935), the famous cultural historian Johan Huizinga criticized mass sports for being superficial, being played to win, to establish records or to simply divert oneself. Huizinga called this ‘puerilistic’ and he equated it with American anti-cultural banality, yet he also stressed that one of sport’s shortcomings was having become ‘unconsecrated’ and devoid of religious meaning.
Such anti-sport sentiments, soaked with religious and ideological arguments, almost led to a blockade of the Olympic Games, which in 1921, after diplomatic and international skirmishes, the IOC officially assigned to the Netherlands. Public discourse was divided between enthusiast sport associations, business men, Rotarians and tourist bureaus seeing commercial opportunities and a possibility to present ‘Holland’ as a modern nation, and confessional leaders warning against the infringement of Sunday rest and a tsunami of godlessness that was to overflow the country. The fact that a fair number of female athletes would compete did not help either. Up until then, the government – dominated by the nineteenth century bourgeois mentality and representatives of the confessional and social-democratic pillars – had played no active role whatsoever in sport. Supporting the building of swimming pools, gymnastic halls and football fields was left to the local level. Regarding the Olympics, however, the national government faced the request to donate 1 million guilders (nowadays more than 6.5 million euro) to host the event. After heavy parliamentary debates the results of the vote was negative. Only a public financial collection and the donations of large companies like Philips and Shell helped to save the 1928 Olympics. Yet, no opening ceremony had ever been so religiously toned as the one in Amsterdam, featuring Calvinist songs and an opening speech by Home Secretary Johan de Visser (a theologian!) who compared the Olympics to the ‘flame of deep-religious passion … the purer the spirit, the purer its bodily representation. This is the point where religion and sport meet’.
During this phase in sport culture, the Dutch head of state, Queen Wilhelmina, did not prioritize a sport event nor did she see it as a prestigious occasion. To the dismay of the organizing committee, she was not present at the opening ceremony because the organizers had failed to consult her about the date. Consequently, she refused to let her vacation in Norway be interrupted, although she did appear for the closing ceremony to give the medals. For this, too, she was criticized, but this time by orthodox Protestants because the ceremony took place on a Sunday. Nevertheless, Dutch medallists were publicly celebrated, ‘like heroes’, ‘a triumphant general’, ‘carrying the pendant to honour the fatherland’. Things were beginning to change.
The long-lasting impact of World War II: unity and institutionalization, 1941-1960s
Olympic successes in 1928, 1932 and 1936, as well as the Dutch football team’s qualification for the FIFA World Cup of 1934, further boosted national sport enthusiasm (the song ‘We’re going to Rome’ became a hit). Yet ironically, it took a foreign occupation to change the pillarized sport structure and mentality. In 1941, the Germans demanded the fusion of the separate sport organizations, because in the long run this would facilitate cultural Nazification. As a consequence, both the liberal, Catholic, Protestant and Social-Democrat sport associations in each sport merged into national ones. In addition, the Nazis wanted to deal with only a few sport representatives to increase control. This forced policy required all the segments in sport to work together and in fact was the beginning of a gradual organizational unification of Dutch sport. Furthermore, for the first time, sport became part of national politics through the instalment of a department of Physical Education and Sport within the Ministry of Education, Arts and Sciences. Local politicians, sympathizing with the new regime, were named municipal counsellors of sport. Only sport clubs that were affiliated with the department were allowed and the large majority complied to save their clubs. Jewish sport clubs, however, were targeted and banned altogether after the autumn of 1941.
Despite the loss of independent sport organizations and the circumstances of war, the popularity of sport increased enormously. Because Nazification was not planned until later, sport could flourish as a relative outlet for a population under pressure, tolerated by its occupiers. Football matches, large Six Day cycling events and the Eleven Cities Tour on skates in Friesland attracted crowds. In 1943, 8 million football and cycling events tickets were sold, twice as many as in 1940. Because the Nazis perceived boxing as a manly sport and a means for ideological propaganda, they lifted the ban on professional boxing matches which had existed in numerous Dutch cities since the early 1920s. Dutch boxers competed wherever they could, including in Germany. Cyclists did the same.
The devastating last year of the war left a great impact on sport. Many Jewish athletes (gymnasts, boxers, football players) had not survived the concentration camps. Materials and facilities were lacking. The call for support after the war led to a greater active involvement of the national government in planning and building sporting facilities, partly because sport was now seen as an adequate means to reach out to the youth outside school hours. Furthermore, several parties wished not to return to the pre-war divided sport structure. ‘Unity in sport’ became the new slogan. Due to this, sport could become nationally institutionalized. First, the Dutch Olympic Committee (NOC), led by a former politician, played a centralizing role, followed by the founding of a new umbrella sport institute that encompassed all sport associations, the Dutch Sport Federation (NSF) in 1959. The overall aim was to catch up as a sporting nation and to attract more governmental support, since it was felt that the Netherlands was the ugly duckling in international sport. A first official governmental note that addressed the government’s role in sport appeared in 1960. Although it was primarily an inventory of the needs for facilities and governmental support, it could be seen as a start.
Simultaneously, societal appraisal of national sport increased. Occasional successes like the four golden medals of athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen at the 1948 London Olympics were broadly acknowledged and celebrated. In football, it took another force from outside sport to give another push. While most European countries had established professional football after the war, Dutch competition was still based on amateurism, despite large sums of money being paid unofficially. Much to the dismay of football fans, the best Dutch players played in professional competitions in other countries, particularly in France and Italy. But when the country was hit by a disastrous flooding in 1953, these professionals decided to play a charity match against a French team for the victims. It was played in the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris in front of more than 6,000 Dutch spectators, with a live radio broadcast and an enthusiast press. After this match, won by the Dutch 2-1, the call for professional football increased. It was realized a year later.
De-pillarization and governmentalization of sport
A definite change in favour of the nation’s, as well as the government’s, warming up towards sport occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. I discern three societal transformations that underlie this change. Firstly, this era saw the erosion of the confessional and ideological pillars and a gradual loosening of traditional cohesive structures that had been almost ‘natural’ authorities and accomplished facts for more than half a century. Although this was an international phenomenon, its impact was probably felt the most in the Netherlands where progressive forces were unusually numerous and influential. All of a sudden, young journalists critically targeted politicians, demanding explanations. New, often leftist, political parties came to the fore and young attractive politicians made excellent use of the new media of those days, like television.
In addition, Christendom as such began to decline. Many people secularized quite rapidly or became believers without belonging, as Davie has typified them so eloquently. To a certain extent, sport began to fill the ‘belonging’ part. One could even say that the decrease of confessional influence marked the start of a more public celebration and also mediatisation of sport, and of large-scale recreational sport. The weekend was about amusement and no longer about going to church. Sport mirrored this era of optimism, liberty and hope, with successful Dutch club football (Ajax and Feyenoord), cyclists and speed skaters as its embodiments. To a certain extent, it can be argued that sport became a new civil religion. Empty churches, full stadiums, as Stokvis summarizes this process.
Simultaneously, Dutch society underwent an emancipation of the civilian. Traditional hierarchies, class backgrounds and gender began to determined one’s societal position to a lesser extent than previously. The democratization of education and societal careers lead to more upward climbing. Sport and social sport capital became part of this meritocracy, with soccer players as a case in point. Ajax-star Johan Cruyff, for example, son of a grocery owner in an Amsterdam suburb, became the nation’s most distinguished player and export product. He was the first football player who translated his status as a sporting icon into activities beyond the playing field, like appearing in popular Saturday evening television shows. In time, the public construction of Cruyff as a Dutch-made god began, describing him in terms as a saviour and a superstar with symbolic initials JC.
Thirdly, the problematisation of the welfare state started to influence the government’s involvement with sport. During the first post-war years, welfare had been a positive term, promised by all political parties. The backlash occurred during the 1960s, when physicians pointed at the increase of cardiovascular diseases that lead to early death. Inspired by Scandinavian examples the NSF, began the promotion of sports for all, called ‘trimming’, to revitalize the people. It was the beginning of several initiatives in which both civil organisations and – for the first time – also the government participated. In 1969, members of the Cabinet even featured practising sport in a glossy weekend magazine, aimed at promoting the National Trim Action. A second national action called Sportive Recreation for All, Sportreal, followed in 1976, while between 1969 and 1976 approximately 115 experimental smaller actions were initiated by the Department of Culture, Recreation and Welfare. Van Bottenburg has typified the trimming action as the beginning of governmentalization of sport in the Netherlands, eventually leading to sport becoming part of the political agenda. Indeed, after previous ministers had postponed it over and over again, 1974 saw the long-awaited first national sport policy document, establishing (recreational) sport as part of well-being, the quality of life and hence a matter for the national government.
Politicization of sport and sportification of politics
The recession of the 1980s saw sports clubs hit with retrenchments and more privatization. Apart from the development of a distinct target group policy aimed at social minorities, women and ethnic groups, public sport policy was given a lower profile. The role of private funding once again became important and commercial sport increased. This also became apparent when businessmen, sport officials and politicians cooperated in the bid committee to organize the Olympic Games in Amsterdam once more. Ed van Thijn, Mayor of Amsterdam, former member of parliament for the Social Democrats and former rower, was chair. However, this time the situation was reversed to that of 1928. While parliament was in favour, parts of the public were not. Social protest movements, like the squatters, protested against the costs of such an event when so many people lacked adequate housing. Also, the impact on the environment was mentioned. Their public protest impacted on the IOC-delegation during their visit in Amsterdam. ‘How long can this show go on?’ the national newspaper de Volkskrant asked?
The 1990s saw a much warmer mutual relationship between government and national sport organizations. A strong lobby of the merged NOC*NSF and influential businessmen, backed by politicians (some of whom were former athletes) stressed the societal meaning of both sport participation and elite sport. This led to a new politicization of sport, resulting in larger budgets, also for elite sport, and the use of sport as a means to achieve nonsporting objectives. A major role was played by former Olympic medallist Erica Terpstra, who in 1994 became state secretary with sport in her portfolio in the first of two non-confessional cabinets led by Social Democrat Wim Kok. Sport became one of the three pillars of the new department, next to Health and Welfare in 1998. Sport no longer had to legitimize itself as important; the cabinet underlined its value for society and doubled the budget. After the successful Olympic Games of 2000 in Sydney (where for the first time the Netherlands ended in the top-10 of the medal list), both the realm of sport and politics acknowledged the significance of elite sport. The National Sport Policy Document of 2000 echoed this. When Terpstra was elected as chair of NOC*NSF in 2003, this definitely symbolized the coming together of public policy and sport.
Yet, I argue, there was more to it than clever lobbying. Simultaneously, a development within political culture that had already started at the beginning of the 1970s also played a role. This sportification of politics demonstrated that politicians had finally discovered the merit of sport and were unwilling to let go. Due to the already mentioned de-pillarization, the loss of established authority and meritocratization and mediatisation processes, politicians could no longer fall back upon traditional linkages of class, religion and political identity. They had to work to win the popular vote and attract fans. In the past, the norm for the political elite was to be rigorously self-disciplined, sober and without a private life. After the 1960s, expressions of emotions, approachability and authenticity became important assets. In addition, in the era of television the entertainment culture started to provide the dominant cultural framework within which to make sense of politics. Interaction with the sphere of popular culture turned out to be a key to win the hearts of the people and became part of outside experts’ advice to politicians. Their success depended on the capacity to project an integrated persona on the triple stages of politics, media, and private life alike. Media scholar Liesbet van Zoonen has labelled these as ‘celebrity politicians’ for whom a popular public image became of vital importance. In the 1920s, sport-minded minister Jan Kan had been criticized for not being statesmanlike after often appearing at matches or even playing tennis himself. In the 1970s, however, signalling the increased importance of sport in the public realm, politicians began to look for media opportunities to be seen with successful players and athletes as one of the opportunities to create such an image.
This first occurred after the legendary performance at the 1974 World Cup where the Dutch football team finished second to Germany. Prime Minister Joop den Uyl, a Social Democrat leading the countries’ first non-confessional government, conspicuously participated in the celebrations in the garden of the Catshuis, the Prime Minister’s official seat, while a line-up of press photographers were taking pictures. His party also began to use popular Feyenoord player Willem van Hanegem in advertisements, claiming he always voted Labour. Other politicians followed suit. Catholic Prime Minister Dries van Agt, a somewhat formalist legal expert, began to appear in public on a bicycle, even using cycling as a way to gain popularity and keep fellow politicians waiting because he wanted to be present at a race. During election time, Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers played football in a team of fellow Christian Democrats; he was, of course, the captain. In an interview with Lubbers in 1974 – he was at that time a minister and shortly afterwards would become the Prime Minister of three consecutive cabinets – he was introduced in two words: minister and hockey player. ‘What type of player are you?’, Lubbers was asked, and he answered: ‘I run a lot and work a lot and know when to hit’. Sport metaphors had clearly entered the political realm, typifying in a language that everyone could understand what sort of person a politician was.
Since then, a whole range of politicians, no matter what political background or even gender, began to portray themselves as being sportive, either as successful or at least keen marathon runners, active skaters, swimmers or as cyclists. For decades, popular media had been imagining, framing and cultivating some of these sports as part of Dutch cultural heritage because they refer to (frozen) water – which the Netherlands abounds in – and the country’s romanticized battle against it. Cycling is one of the flat country’s most popular means of transportation. Furthermore, these sports have a high signal value; because of the large number of participants, most Olympic medals were scored precisely in these disciplines. In addition, they represent something that requires endurance. As such they symbolized the desired qualities of a politician and offered a framework for a personalization of politics. As for team work, to highlight certain occasions, male politicians increasingly began appearing in football or hockey teams. At Lubbers’ farewell in 1994, together with fellow members of cabinet and parliament he played a hockey match against a team of mayors. Female parliamentarian Erica Terpstra acted as coach.
Next to displaying sportiness, sport offered ample opportunities for showing up at sporting events to get in touch with the electorate. Interaction with famous athletes provided a way of popular fame by proximity. When cyclist Jan Janssen won the Tour de France in 1968, no politician was in sight. Joop Zoetemelk’s victory in 1980, however, showed a beaming Van Agt next to him on the podium, even hugging the rather astonished cyclist in an unprecedentedly familiar way. Close-up photos cemented the historic moment. At the finals of the European Championship in 1988, not only was Prime Minister Lubbers present together with his wife, but also the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Secretary of Sport and Prince Johan Friso. Winning the title lead to euphoria, particularly because the tournament had been played in Germany and part of the victory included defeating the German team. The royal House of Orange now prominently joined in the festivities. It was the first time that a national team received a royal medal. The popular captain Ruud Gullit and the team’s coach Rinus Michels (respectively the son of a Surinamese migrant and an Amsterdam typographer) were publicly celebrated and photographed with Queen Beatrix standing between them.
The embrace of the royal House of Orange with sport not only sealed sport’s position in the popular realm, but also worked to popularize the monarchy. Like politicians, royals were no longer exempt from public criticism but since the 1960s had needed to work on their public image. Crown Prince William Alexander, who in preparation for the kingship was in dire need of improving his image as a superficial playboy, understood this. Next to water management he chose sport as key part of his public image. Being a keen athlete himself, he successfully participated in the country’s most traditional, celebrated, mediatized and heroized sporting event, the Eleven Cities Tour, a race for skaters that takes place on canals in Friesland in the north of the Netherlands. The route of the race goes through eleven cities and is nearly 200 kilometres long. It can only be held in winters when it has been cold enough to freeze the canals. The first year it took place was 1909 and it has been held fifteen times in total. William Alexander managed to finish the 1986 edition, when he was eighteen years old. His finish after sixteen hours of skating, ending in the arms of his mother, Queen Beatrix, and father, Prince Claus, was broadcast live and made his name as a real sportsman, a man and someone who stood together with the other heroic finishers. In 1992, he finished somewhat less successfully in the New York marathon (in more than 4.5 hours). Furthermore, in 1998 he succeeded in being elected to the IOC, being present at all tournaments great and small. He then embodied two unifying realms: the House of Orange and sport, and every politician that wanted media attention just had to make sure to be somewhere near the Crown Prince during a sporting event.
In line with this, since the successful 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Dutch Olympic teams have been officially and ceremonially sent off to the Games, while those who win a medal are escorted home, knighted and celebrated endlessly, with keen politicians at their side. This particularly mattered because most Olympic successes were achieved in sports that, as said, were framed as ‘typically Dutch’: in the water, on the water, on a bike or on a horse. These were ideal champions to honour and this was exactly what happened on a large scale from then on, including military symbols like the welcoming by jet fighters, the reception by the Prime Minister, the lintjes and the royal reception. Within this culture it does not come as a surprise that visions of once again organizing the Olympics regularly come up. Despite criticism, nowadays King William Alexander is one of its supporters, expressing as his view that ‘the Olympics are an ideal point at the horizon of a new Netherlands that can be of benefit for decades’.
The above chapter sketches how, despite an at times vehement anti-sport rhetoric and a long-term absentee government, the Dutch gradually embraced sport. Based on initiatives from below, volunteers, pillarized organizations and a gradual integration, sport clubs have become a solid base of civil culture. In fact, the largest number of large clubs (500 members of more) in Europe can be found in the Netherlands. In 2017, there were 23,870, clubs, which remains a fairly stable number; most have excellent facilities. 64 percent of the Dutch are active in sport on a weekly basis and people with a migratory background are included relatively often.
Yet, the recent public and political framing of successful elite sport as the typical way in which ‘the Dutch’ do things is another story altogether. The rhetoric suggests the historical consistency of a unified great sporting nation. However, looking at history, contingency and ambiguity seem more appropriate terms to describe the mutual relations and only gradually converging interests between sport, the public and particularly the political realm. The colourful pictures of Team NL, politicians and royals, and the successful construction of unity they represent are of a recent date.
Since the successful Sydney Olympics, both by the government and NOC*NSF collaborated to launch an official campaign that aimed at becoming and remaining a Top-10 country, that is to be in the top 10 of Olympic medals on a structural basis. This has been the policy ever since: top level sport is now at the core of national neo-liberal policy. In 2017, the new Secretary of Sport announced that an extra 10 million euros would go to top-level sport. The ministry was among the first to congratulate Team NL on its successes at the Winter Olympics, again by referring to the country’s ranking – fifth, this time, all due to skating – a real Dutch sport. Together with royal blessings and hugging, the Dutch Prime Minister cycling across the Olympic village together with the King and the constant reproduction of these images in social loops, the making of ‘the all-Dutch sporting hero’ comes as no surprise. Pictures and conceptualizations like these have become ground into public awareness and collective memory, giving them historical bearing.
However, not everything has changed. From the beginning, the Dutch have had an eye for the commercial advantages of sport. Whether Philips, Shell, KLM, insurance companies or banks, all have benefitted. Therefore, perhaps the greatest winner of the recently discovered sporting ambition is brewer Heineken, whose Holland Heineken House is the place to be during the Olympic Games. This winner really takes it all.
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