A year ago, a large-scale investigation of the top sports culture in the Netherlands started. The reason was abuse in several sports, but the investigation does not focus on transgressive behavior. NU.nl lists exactly what is being investigated and what the current situation is.
It is the largest study of elite sports culture in the world. According to leading researchers Marjan Olfers (professor of sports and law at VU University Amsterdam) and Anton van Wijk (criminologist and psychologist at research agency Verinorm), such an ambitious project has never been started in this area before. “It’s probably the most challenging research I’ll ever do,” Olfers said.
The research addresses two main questions about elite sports culture. These are: what is a healthy elite sports climate? And what characteristics determine whether a top sports culture is good?
The researchers look at many different factors for the answers. This includes funding (does a sport that involves relatively large amounts of money have a different culture to a sport with few resources?), training methods (do you train individually or centrally such as Papendal sports center?) and trade (what does a commercial team do with a sport?).
The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports (VWS) finances the research. In October 2021, then State Secretary Paul Blokhuis ordered a thorough analysis of Dutch top sport. The minister of ChristenUnie, who has since left, was shocked by stories of abuse in the sport. The most well-known example is a study on humiliation, intimidation, insults and a culture of fear in gymnastics.
“We have signals that abuse is not just a problem in gymnastics, but that it occurs across the board,” Blokhuis said more than a year ago in a debate in the House of Representatives. “What’s a gold medal at the Olympics worth? That’s the whole story.”
Nevertheless, it is emphatically not a study of transgressive behavior. Such reports can only be made after abuse has occurred. The researchers hope that their findings can actually help prevent unwanted behaviour. “If you know the top sports culture, you can intervene better and offer better solutions,” Olfers said last September.
Olfers emphasized on Friday in another update of the research that she and her colleagues will also mention the good elements from the top sport. “We tend to zoom in a lot on the negative sides, and they are often very sad. But top sport can also be very beautiful.”
The researchers will not ignore signals of unwanted behavior. “We don’t research it, that makes it a bit complicated,” says Olfers. “But we can refer athletes who report abuse to us to an agency that could investigate their case.”
The plan is to cover around twenty sports in full screen. The research started last year with judo, ice hockey, volleyball and cycling. Six sports have been added this month: table tennis, snow sports (skiing and snowboarding), fencing, archery, curling and athletics. It is intended that major sports such as football, hockey and tennis should also be included.
Each sport gets its own report. The results of the first four sports should be presented sometime in the coming months. The final conclusions and recommendations based on all sports will be published in autumn 2024. “Then we will put a spear in all those reports,” says Olfers.
The choice of athletics in the ‘second phase’ of the study is unrelated to recent stories of transgressive behavior in that sport. Fidelity and NRC reported last October that athletes have experienced harassment, verbal aggression and bullying at Papendal. “There is no connection between those stories and our choice,” says Olfers.
The research is mainly based on questionnaires and interviews. Athletes and coaches are encouraged to answer – anonymously – a standardized list of around two hundred questions. In addition, the researchers watch training sessions and competitions, and there are dozens of interviews with those involved per sport.
At the request of the sports committees of the sports umbrella organization NOC*NSF, former athletes have recently been contacted to collaborate. “These are athletes who quit no more than two years ago,” Olfers said Friday. “Because we are researching the current elite sports culture, not the past.” This extension of the research, approved by the VWS, means that the results of the first four sports are not yet known.
The percentage of athletes who cooperate can still be increased by the researchers. “Completing the questionnaire takes about forty minutes, and we note that it is perceived as long,” Olfers said.
Participation in the first four sports is around 30 percent. “Although that picture is partly distorted because we are not quite ready yet and we do not want to disturb athletes when they have an important competition. But we researchers always want to achieve at least 40 percent. The lesson from the past year is that we must actively commit to encouraging athletes and coaches to participate.”
Pieter van den Hoogenband will help convince athletes to cooperate. The former top swimmer and current chief de mission at the Summer Olympics has been an ambassador for research since the beginning of this year.
“I will primarily focus on motivating athletes to participate in the research,” says Van den Hoogenband. “An optimal culture is extremely important for optimal performance. Therefore, it is very important for the entire elite sport that the largest possible group of athletes completes the questionnaires.”
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