Less orange during the uneven years
HOLLAND IS A COUNTRY of green pastures and drab grey housing estates. But every other year, during the winter and summer months, half the country is garbed in orange. Just as on the Queen's official birthday, the country has a carnival look to it during the international skating and football championships. During the European and World Championships, chauvinism knows no bounds in a country otherwise noted for its sobriety. Police officers decorate their uniforms and office workers wear orange ties behind their computer terminals. With any luck, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander will be leading a polonaise somewhere or other. The House of Orange as the symbol of a nation's hopes.
There is a famous Dutch saying that goes: 'How a small country can still be great'. Gold medals go a long way in making up for a chronic lack of political and economic clout. For a country its size, the Netherlands had achieved considerable sporting success. The fact that people outside the country are not particularly interested in speed skating is of strictly secondary importance. Double Olympic medallist Gianni Romme is a famous sports personality, at least in his own country.
Everyone skates in Holland, where an excess of water and a lack of snow combine to make for ideal skating conditions during the winter freeze. Where else can you find hundreds of thousands of people on the ice during severe winters? Pea soup is the staple diet of skaters who ride long-distance treks past windmills and dykes. Skating is a long-established tradition in Holland. Even in old paintings by masters such as Anton Pieck, there is always a skater gliding through some corner of the
frame. Skating has a strong folkloric aspect to it. Spectators at the major championships are usually less interested in the lap times that nevertheless determine the outcome. They drink beer and Beerenburger, a herbal spirit distilled in the northern province of Friesland. They sing themselves
hoarse, their faces painted orange. At the same
time, millions of people cluster around their televisions in defiance of the old American adage that watching skating is about as interesting as watching the grass grow tall.
The ultimate in skating pleasure is the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities' Tour), a race over two hundred kilometres past eleven Frisian cities. The tour can only be held during very severe winters, when the lakes and canals are sufficiently frozen over to bear the weight of so many skaters and allow water traffic to be suspended for an extended period of
time. On the day of the Elfstedentocht, the Dutch economy grinds to a halt. The Crown Prince took part in the race anonymously in 1986.
Along with the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, football is an important aspect of Dutch culture. Between 1987 and 1994, when Marco van Basten was at the height of his divinity at AC Milan, the number of Italian tourists in the Netherlands
rose by three hundred percent, all of them wanting a peek at the house where the great man was born. Dutch holidays-makers in Greece between 1965 and 1985 were invariably treated to taxi drivers' appraisals of Johan Cruijff's footballing talents. As the ambassador of a nation proud of its football, he was present at the birth of the philosophy that became known as of Total Football and was later adopted around the world.
Every Sunday evening between seven and eight o'clock, millions of people, most of them men, watch highlights of the Dutch football league. The standard of play in the domestic competition has plummeted over the last few years as most of the top players have departed to richer clubs abroad. Nevertheless, many families still eat their Sunday dinner in front of the television.
Ajax and Feyenoord have traditionally been the top clubs in Dutch football. Each reflects the character of its supporters. Ajax is a club schooled in technical ability and is supported by the artists and horse-traders of Amsterdam. First and foremost, Feyenoord players are physically strong, drawing
their most dedicated support from the Rotterdam dock workers. PSV Eindhoven does a reasonable job as an outsider. For years, PSV, lead by managers from Eindhoven-based electronics giant Philips, epitomised capitalism in sport. Today the increasing commercialisation of football has eroded the uniqueness of PSV's approach.
The Netherlands is much less orange in 'uneven' years during which no European or World Championships nor Olympic Games are held. Annual sporting events such as Wimbledon or the
Tour de France appeal much less to the popular imagination. Most people have no qualms about going on holiday during these summers and missing Richard Krajicek's exploits at Wimbledon or
those of Michael Boogerd, Krajicek's primary school class-mate, on the Tour de France.
Cycling is only really popular in the Catholic south of the Netherlands. After the Tour de France, the cyclists earn a great deal of money 'riding circles around the church', as these races are often called. If you look around the countryside these days, you will see that most cycling amateurs are middle-aged. The young have all but abandoned cycling, considering it a sport for mad endurance freaks.
Dutch athletes excel in outdoor sports, with the exception of indoor speed skating. Despite the fact that the rainy climate might be seen to encourage the pursuit of indoor sports, international success in these disciplines is extremely rare. The major exception to the rule was the men's volleyball
team, which won the gold medal at the 1996
Olympics. Since then, however, the team's form has deteriorated. Handball and basketball are in an even more dire condition. The average Dutchman is only really interested in the NBA playoffs, which receive wide television coverage.
Korfball and field hockey have a distinct status in the Netherlands. Korfball is a poor excuse for basketball with a wicker basket instead of a net as a goal. It is a mixed-team sport that only the Dutch and the Belgians take seriously. Fanatic missionaries of korfball travel the world with balls and baskets in a brave attempt to convert the masses. This form of evangelism seems doomed to fail: korfball remains a sport for the Low Countries alone.
At least ten countries worldwide take field
hockey seriously and of these, the Netherlands has the highest number of artificial turf fields. The national teams are exceptionally good, with the men's team currently holders of the World and
Olympic titles and the women's team perpetual runners-up to the Australians. Unlike in the
United States, hockey in the Netherlands is not just a girls' sport. It is equally suited to macho men who have no difficulty downing a barrel of beer after a match. Membership of a hockey club is first and foremost a ticket to gezelligheid, a typically Dutch concept, the meaning of which is only partly conveyed in English by words such as companionship or conviviality.
Traditional pursuits such as swimming, gymnastics and athletics receive relatively little attention in the Netherlands. Physical education is relatively unimportant in Dutch schools, especially in comparison with countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom. Added to this is the fact that the Dutch mentality is relatively unsuited to individual sports, displaying instead a marked preference for shared endeavour. The exceptional athletes who are prepared to train on their own for
eight hours a day receive pitifully little support from the sports authorities or the government. It must be said, however, that matters have improved somewhat over the last few years. The international success of the swimming team is the logical consequence of a much more deliberate policy towards professional sport.
The lack of important skating or football competitions this past winter was compensated by the World Darts Championships. Darts used to be an exclusively British pub sport. Until, that is, a Dutch postman called Raymond van Barneveld started playing darts in his spare time. The success of the working-class lad from The Hague in beating the Brits at their own game has unleashed a new craze in the Netherlands. He is affectionately known as Barney, in reference to Fred Flintstone's neighbour, and is one of the favourites for Dutch Sports Personality of the Year 1999. His candidacy serves as ample illustration of the diminutive stature of Dutch sporting culture.