When low lands are turned orange by sport
A LETTER FROM: Rotterdam, Netherlands
– Written by Robbart van Linschoten, Qatar
In 1936 the Dutch novelist Hendrik Marsman described the Netherlands in a famous poem, Memory of Holland. The poem opens with:
“Thinking of Holland
I see wide-flowing rivers
like lofty plumes
on the skyline in lanes1;”
It is probably the combination of landscape and the people who lived on this ground fighting flooding waters for over 1,000 years that make the Dutch so fond of water and excellent in the sports they can do in or on it.
The Netherlands have a tradition in their struggle against the water. When the Romans left the ‘hollow lands’ (Holland) in about 300 AD, the areas of land that were surrounded by the North Sea and crossed by the big rivers were sparsely inhabited. In the 12th century climate change and technology brought the old settlers back to areas which were basically swamps. Small projects for reclaiming land from the waters and protecting the inhabitants by building dykes were the start of a Renaissance of the Netherlands. And, as all Dutch people know, especially since over 25% of the country lies beneath sea level, the fight against the water is never-ending. But as the proverb goes,‘ if you can’t beat them, join them’ and the Dutch have done just that by learning how to sail, building ships, making ice skates from animal bones, teaching their children to swim to prevent them from drowning and rowing their boats if the prevailing winds, on rare occasions, do not blow.
The interaction between nature, geography and climate has led to over 50% of the Dutch population over 6 years of age being actively engaged in sports and around 70% of the population meeting the World Health Organization’s requirements of physical activity (5 times a week, 30 minutes of moderate intense activity)2. There are many reasons for these outstanding figures but one of them can certainly be attributed to the way that bicycles are used for both commuting and leisure. Almost all children ride their bikes to their school and sports clubs, and each Dutchman owns 1.1 bicycle on which he can ride 17,000 km of designated bike lanes.
Besides the integration of physical activity into daily life, there are 27,000 sport clubs in the Netherlands, serving the population of 17 million people. All these clubs are managed by volunteers and have boards consisting of chosen members. There is a high degree of self-directed organisation across these clubs and communities and it is not rare that board members stay involved in a particular club for 40 years! Their basic role is to help the youngsters to play their games and learn their sports and to keep the older members connected with the club. So, sports culture is organised from the bottom up, driven by volunteers and managed at ground level. Over the last 100 years the majority of sports clubs have been organised in national federations which are managed by professionals but are boarded by volunteers. All these federations are members of the National Olympic Committee which issues regular assemblies.
Based on high sports participation rates and the fact that children are active from a young age, there is no shortage of talent to be recruited into elite sports. The Royal Dutch Football Association has 1 million members who are likely to play football every weekend. Organised football starts at the age of 6, and at the age of 12 the most talented boys are invited to join football academies which are mostly owned by the professional football organisations. Education and football development are the key elements at these academies. The quality of the Dutch academies is renowned and youngsters may even leave at the age of 16 to join major European clubs. All these excellent football players hope to get a place in the National ‘Orange’ Team, passionately supported by their orange-dressed fans who can be found all over the world. But it’s not just football that attracts the support of ‘Team Orange’; hockey, swimming, cycling, tennis and gymnastics are just some of the other popular national sports. Although the national football team has lost three World Cup finals, the Dutch can find good reasons to be proud of their achievements and will, dressed in orange, celebrate any second place as if it were a gold medal!
Speaking of swimming, at about the age of 5, Dutch children start to learn to swim twice a week and are trained in a programme called the ‘Swim ABC®’. At the end of the programme, kids try for a diploma – there are 500,000 diplomas issued each year3. Although the objective of swimming training is to be safe in the water, one can imagine that Olympic talents literally float on water as shown by the recent successes of Gold medal-winning swimmers Pieter van den Hoogenband, Inge de Bruijn and Ranomi Kromowidjojo.
While swimming training and competitions are held at the 800 public swimming pools, the Dutch are themselves surrounded by 7,650 km2 of inland water – 16% of the country – and 62,000 km2 of sea. This is a real challenge for sailors and rowers! Again, education about sailing from a young age leads to experienced recreational sailors and, in many cases, to Olympic medal winners. Interestingly, rowing training doesn’t usually start until young adult age, when university freshman are attracted to the hard and sporty lifestyle of being a rower. Nevertheless, this system still leads to major successes at World Cups and Olympics.
What about when the water freezes? Then the Dutch get caught up in ‘Ice Fever’, as winter sports dominate the news and sports programmes. Speed skating in the Netherlands attracts thousands of fans and even more active participants. This popularity can be explained by the fact that skating is a centuries’ old tradition, as you can see in paintings by some of the Dutch Masters. Back then, skating on the ice in winter was the easiest form of transportation! But skating is also fun and people love the thrill of skating competitively. That thrill reaches fever pitch when an ‘11 cities skating tour’ is announced. This monstrous 200 km-long race goes from city to city in the province of Friesland. Adding to the anticipation of this event is the rule that it can only be held when the ice on the entire course is at least 15 cm thick, which does not happen every year, and only 16,000 competitors can join. The first official race was held in 1909 and only 15 have been organised since. Based on this low frequency it can be a once in a lifetime experience for privileged skaters. Competitors who complete the tour before midnight receive the much sought after Elfsteden cross, an award which is so special that the recently sworn-in king of the Netherlands, who himself completed the tour in 1986, granted the cross official decoration status by royal decree. Proud skaters may now wear their cross at national festivities!
As you can see, sports in the Netherlands is deeply engrained in the lives of every citizen, even the King!
Robbart van Linschoten M.D., Ph.D.
Sports Medicine Consultant
Aspetar – Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Hospital
Translation by Paul Vincent.
Sociaal Cultureel Planburo. [Sports: lifelong]. 2010.
Nationaal Platform Zwembaden. From http://www.npz-nrz.nl/index.php?sid=70) Accessed 2013.
Image via http://www.wkvoetbalkampioenschap.nl/