Ice hockey, judo, volleyball and cycling. These are the first of 20 to 24 sports where in-depth and comprehensive research into top sports culture will take place. Professor of sports and law Marjan Olfers (VU) and criminologist Anton van Wijk told this on Wednesday afternoon during a meeting in Utrecht, where they explained for the first time how their research is set up.
It’s the largest study of elite sports culture in the world, and it’s only just getting started. Never before has a country taken such an in-depth look at the way top sport is organized – and what consequences it has for athletes, coaches, sports doctors and other stakeholders.
The goal is to present standardized questionnaires to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of athletes. These are twenty page lists that can take up to forty minutes to complete. The issues range from the way training is delivered to medical supervision to funding the sport. In addition, the researchers will speak in-depth with athletes, coaches and other stakeholders, and they will visit training sessions, competitions and tournaments. “We want to redefine what a healthy elite sports culture is. This has never been done before,” says Marjan Olfers.
No transgressive behavior
The investigation was decided last year when abuses in the world of gymnastics had reached the House of Representatives and then State Secretary Paul Blokhuis (ChristenUnie) promised that the entire top sport would be investigated. The ministry is making 220,000 euros available this year and 440,000 euros next year.
In gymnastics, things had gone completely wrong for years. Young girls were physically and psychologically abused, the culture turned out to be so focused on performance that human dignity came second. Girls were constantly weighed by some coaches, sometimes scolded if they were overweight in the coach’s eyes. An ex-gymnast came forward with the story that she moved in with her coach and he then began monitoring her menstrual cycle as it would affect her performance.
The investigation that followed abuse in the world of gymnastics is also what many know Olfers and Van Wijk from. They wrote the research report with their analysis agency Verinorm last April Uneven shelves, with which they exposed the sick culture in top gymnastics. They are now also investigating abuse in the dance world.
When athletes report, we pass them on to the body that can investigate their case
Still, they want to emphasize that research into top sports culture in the Netherlands is not about transgressive behavior. Olfers: “It really is a completely different type of research. It’s about the culture for us – we’re not here to investigate cross-border behavior within unions or from specific coaches.” Colleague Anton van Wijk: “If cross-border behavior is investigated, it is reactive because reports have been received. This research is proactive: what is a healthy elite sports culture?”
It seems difficult to keep the two subjects separate. Especially in gymnastics, transgressive behavior was possible due to the culture that prevailed there – initiated by the arrival of Eastern European coaches in the Netherlands in the 1980s. There was also a culture in triathlon that allowed abuse to take place for years. The same was true for the women’s hockey team – there the performance culture under coach Alyson Annan was so harsh that athletes were belittled.
Also read: this NRC research story on the culture within the successful women’s hockey team
Olfers: “Of course we look at unwanted behavior if it is a result of the elite sports culture. In the judo that we are investigating, for example, there have been signals of behavior that crosses borders – we want to know to what extent culture is the cause. However, if individual athletes report to us because they have experienced undesirable behavior, we will refer them to an agency that can investigate their case.”
A large team has been formed to maintain the balance of research and guarantee that scientifically clean work is carried out. The Verinorm researchers work together with, among others, the Hogeschool Utrecht and the Knowledge Center for Sports and Exercise, and there is a kind of supervisory board with researchers from sociology, methodology, pedagogy and psychology.
It is no coincidence that ice hockey, judo, volleyball and cycling started. These are team and individual sports, outdoor or indoor sports, all of which are organized and financed very differently. As a result, the researchers hope to immediately discover differences in the culture of the specific sports. It is not yet clear which sports will follow. An individual report will most likely be published for each sport investigated, with a large report at the end on top sports culture in the Netherlands. “Then we stick the spear in all those reports and we can draw general conclusions,” says Olfers.
The conclusions can be very broad, say the researchers. Does it matter if athletes train centrally in top sports center Papendal? Do large commercial teams have a large impact on culture? Are there training methods that create toxic or very comfortable conditions? What does it do to a sport whose participation in the Olympics is allowed at a young age? Are there cultural differences between indoor and outdoor sports? Between team and individual sports? What happens to a country where a gold medal is seen as the highest sporting ambition?
Olfers has previously also researched the culture of cycling, and the events surrounding Michael Rasmussen, the Danish rider from Rabobank, who was expelled from the 2007 Tour and was found to have used doping. Olfers: “Then I noticed how incredibly individualistic the cycling world was. I wonder if it’s different now. In any case, I am very curious about the results.”
It is an ambitious study, which Olfers and Van Wijk agree on. It was actually intended that the first sub-studies should already be ready, but there is ‘some delay’ because the research design was not yet ready. In any case, the researchers hope to have completed the interim reports on the first four studies by next year.
Can it also fail? “You’re asking the wrong person,” laughs Van Wijk. Olfers: “Athletes and coaches must of course participate, we must have as many as possible to talk to us and fill in the questionnaires. But this research is very important for the sport: I will not let this fail.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 29 September 2022