The Netherlands stronger through the power of sport

Date of news: 25 May 2021

At the end of the nineteenth century, sports were an activity for a handful of elite young men. Fifty years later, sports fields could be found in every corner of the country, gymnastics was a compulsory part of the school curriculum and the Dutch were fanatically involved in physical education and sport outside of school and club contexts. On 26 May, historian Jelle Zondag will defend his doctoral thesis on why sport was able to grow into this ubiquitous national phenomenon.

The rise of sport from the end of the nineteenth century was the result of the work of a motley crew of sports and exercise advocates: gymnastics teachers, sports administrators, youth workers, soldiers, doctors, journalists and others. They wrote libraries full of books and travelled far and wide to make the importance of this new social phenomenon clear to the general public and politicians. Indeed, for these propagandists, sport was much more than a pleasurable leisure activity. For them, sport was an instrument in the service of a higher goal: the improvement of the Netherlands.

In his PhD dissertation, Zondag analyses the ideas and efforts of these advocates of physical education and sport, from the rise of sport at the end of the nineteenth century until the Second World War. Using the history of physical education, the Dutch Olympic Committee and the Dutch scouts movement, he examines their ideals and how they tried to put them into practice.

Nijmegen-padvindstersGirl Scouts walking in the Nijmegen Four Days Marches. (Source: Regionaal Archief Nijmegen)

Propagandists get the Netherlands moving

Sebastiaan van Aken, a gymnastics teacher and movement propagandist, is one of the main characters in the book. In 1900, he wrote in the liberal periodical De Gids that gymnastics education was necessary to lift the Dutch population ‘out of its decay and make it fit again to act, both in the economic struggle of nations, and to vigorously and self-confidently maintain its freedom and colonial possessions.

Pieter Scharroo, a professional officer and director of the NOC, was one of the most important propagandists of physical education and sport in the interwar period. After the First World War, he expected fierce economic competition between countries: “Only a physically well-developed race [...] will be able to meet the demands of a more intensive, industrial mode of production. If the Netherlands does not want to be left behind in the race for commercial power [...], it will be important that the education of our people takes into account the task that lies ahead of us. In other words, the task of social and physical education.”

Turnen-voor-RijksmuseumGymnastics fest KNGV 1908 Amsterdam behind the Rijksmuseum. Source: Documentatiecentrum KNGU

A strong nation through sports

“People like Van Aken and Scharroo pursued the ideal of making the Dutch nation more robust through sport,” explains Zondag. “They argued that sport gives you a strong body but also desirable character traits such as courage, willpower, perseverance, discipline and a sense of responsibility. They presented sport as an activity with a collective goal: the strengthening of the nation. Moreover, athletic specimens would make good soldiers who could bolster the inadequate state of the national defence.”

Through the efforts of these advocates, gymnastics became a standard part of education and scouting grew in popularity as a locus for exercise and experiencing nature. The same sporting ideals also gave rise to activities such as four-day marches. Zondag: “Citizens would get to know their own country and enjoy its beauty by walking. According to proponents, a nationalistic feeling would naturally arise among participants.”

These ideals would seem to be from a bygone era, but according to Zondag, shadows of these ideas live on within Dutch sports organisations. “In current plans about sport, such as the National Sports Agreement and reports from the Dutch Sports Council, people still think about sport as a collective ideal. And the website of NOC*NSF clearly states the organisation aims to make the Netherlands stronger through the power of sport.”

A public edition of the thesis will be published by uitgeverij Boom (in Dutch) under the title ‘Volkskracht. Sport, lichamelijke opvoeding en de versterking van Nederland, 1880-1940’ and will go on sale from 26 May in bookstores for €22.50.

Want to learn more? Please contact: