Eleven years ago, just after the disappointing Winter Games in Vancouver, then IOC member Hein Verbruggen knew exactly what the Netherlands lacked in the hunt for Olympic success: money and mental toughness. To belong to the best sports countries in the world, you had to be “ruthless” and that was “un-Dutch”, he said in The Telegraph. In addition, the government required at least a “half a billion check” to get close to competitors such as Australia, the United Kingdom and Italy. His advice: “Leave that top ten ambition.”
Now, eleven years later, the Netherlands is heading for its most successful Summer Olympics ever. After a rough start, ‘TeamNL’ had 31 medals just before the closing weekend, which has already amply broken the old record of 25 from Sydney (2000). With nine golds, the Netherlands also seems to finish in the top ten.
Coincidence? A sudden change in mentality is unlikely and a government check of half a billion never came. In twenty years, public expenditure on top sport has approximately doubled to about 50 million euros per year. That is relatively modest by international standards. Nevertheless, the Dutch Olympic achievements – in the first place the achievement of the athletes – are also the result of Dutch top sport policy.
Sporting success is feasible, research has shown. According to Veerle De Bosscher, professor of sports management at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, roughly half of a country’s Olympic results depend on population size and national income. The other half is determined by factors that are much easier to influence, such as quality of training centers, talent recognition and development, financial support for top athletes during and after their career, scientific support and the extent to which the greatest talents within a discipline can train together.
Also important: making choices, says Hans Westerbeek, professor of International Sport Business at Victoria University in Melbourne. He means that it pays to invest the available money entirely in sports that offer a relatively high chance of medals. Together with Veerle De Bosscher (and others), Westerbeek a comparative study a few years ago to top sports policy in fifteen countries, including the Netherlands, France, Japan, South Korea and Australia. Only Australia (44 medals in Tokyo) scored a fraction better than the Netherlands.
The Dutch success in Tokyo is partly due to the Olympic ambitions that the Netherlands still had ten years ago, with plans to bring the Olympic Games to the Netherlands in 2028, a century after ‘Amsterdam 1928’. Sports umbrella NOC-NSF was the driving force behind this, inspired by the Dutch successes in 2000. In Sydney, the Dutch team won 25 medals, mainly thanks to cyclist Leontien van Moorsel and swimmers Inge de Bruijn and Pieter van den Hoogenband. It resulted in a place in the top ten of the medal table for the first time. After ‘Sydney’, that became the official ambition of NOC-NSF: a structural place in the top ten of the best sports countries in the world.
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But already in 2012, with the coalition agreement of Rutte II, the Olympic Plan 2028 was canceled due to crumbling support among the population. It would become too expensive in an economically uncertain time. However, the cabinet continued to support the ambition to “bring Dutch sport to Olympic level”.
Partly because of this, more money went to Dutch Olympic sport. And it paid off, albeit hesitantly. The top ten was not reached after Sydney. However, the Dutch Olympic team always came close, with places 12 (Beijing 2008), 13 (London 2012) and 11 (Rio 2016). At the Winter Games, the Dutch team has been in the top ten since Nagano 1998, mainly thanks to large numbers of skating medals.
The Netherlands invested in many areas. Better top sports facilities were introduced, such as the ‘swimming laboratory’ in Eindhoven, where the swimmer could train with the latest equipment. For example, underwater cameras could be used to measure exactly at what angle a swimmer should dive into the water at the start. The traditional stopwatch was exchanged for laptops along the edge of the bath. The national sports center Papendal received a state-of-the-art athletics track for almost a million euros, where top athletes Femke Bol (bronze, 400 meters hurdles), Anouk Vetter (silver, heptathlon) and Emma Oosterwegel (bronze, heptathlon) trained, among others.
Other investments went to trainers, physical and mental facilitators, scientific support, nutritionists, innovation programs, talent development. And the Netherlands came back from its ‘honest-we-sharing-everything policy’, as Hans Westerbeek calls it. NOC-NSF has reduced the number of top sports programs in which it invests from 180 in 2012 to 68 in 2016. Only sports associations that are deemed capable of securing Olympic medals can still count on solid funding – a principle that is regularly under fire.
Outgoing technical director of NOC-NSF Maurits Hendriks, the architect of this policy, will see his right confirmed in Tokyo. Not only because of the top ten ranking, but also because of the variety of sports in which the Netherlands has been successful. Medals came from disciplines in which the Netherlands is traditionally good, such as swimming and rowing, but also from, for example, BMX, track cycling and boxing.
The question that remains is: why does the Netherlands want this so badly? The Rutte I cabinet wrote in a letter to the House in 2010 about ‘a feeling of us and national pride’. Furthermore, top sport could have ‘a positive image towards recreational sport’. But it has never been proven that sporting success leads to more sporting amateurs, says Westerbeek. And off a periodic sample from 2016, the „experienced pride and the value that the Dutch population attaches to top sport, […] to confiscate”. For unclear reasons, by the way.
Westerbeek, a sports enthusiast, is therefore ‘cynical’ about the Olympic Games as a source of inspiration. You may even wonder whether it is the government’s job to fund top-class sport, he says. “But if so, be honest and clear about the goals: entertainment and selling the Netherlands brand internationally.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 7 August 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of August 7, 2021