NL Guides

Sport in the Netherlands

A round-up of Dutch sporting tastes and preferences


...the Dutch...are more successful across a broad range of sports than they ought to be for such a small country

Out of a total population of around 16m people, nearly 5m are registered sports club members so you can safely conclude that the Dutch are sports-mad. To accommodate all these (often fanatical) members, there are thousands of organisations, ranging from national sports authorities down to the innumerable, grass-roots, local clubs.

From a young age, children join sports clubs as schools do not really cater for organised sport. Parents should bear in mind that enrolling children at such clubs is not cheap but it will give you and your children access to a wide range of local social networks and contacts.

Of course, with this social access come club duties. Members are tacitly expected to help out with barwork, catering, cleaning or training, for example. Besides the sport, there are usually social events and to run all this activity, there is an almost trade union-like hierarchy, with no shortage of committees and office-bearers who manage the club and take care of official matters.

The Dutch sports psyche

It is no coincidence that many recent technological advances in the ‘science’ of sport (video analysis, match statistics, medical monitoring etc) were either thought up or tested in Holland. Dutch sports fans and players are fascinated by the techniques of their particular sport and are happier discussing detailed skills or strategies rather than ‘passion’ or ‘temperament’.

This rather calvinistic, practical approach helps whenever the national teams do badly. The Dutch prefer to wipe the slate clean and start planning for the next big event rather than waste time on self-reproach and regrets. On balance and in their favour, it must be said they are more successful across a broad range of sports than they ought to be for such a small country.

Traditional sports

The number one sport for both players and spectators is football, which is hardly surprising in the country of Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit. The big three football clubs in recent years have been Ajax Amsterdam, Rotterdam Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven. Ajax and Feyenoord in particular have suffered from hooligan elements, though nowadays this aspect has almost disappeared from the national team support.

Skating is also an important part of the Dutch sports heritage. Once hugely popular, it has recently been relegated from frozen waterways to indoor ice rinks due to the warmer weather of the last few years. Despite this, speed-skating (rather than figure-skating) is still a national obsession, though the Dutch have had few international champions of late. The province of Friesland is the heartland of skating, and if it freezes long enough, they hold one of the longest skating marathons on natural ice in the world: the Eleven Cities race (“Elfstedentocht”).

Other sports

There is a great variety of sport in Holland. Hockey is played widely, cycling is a traditional sport - extensive coverage is available on TV - and tennis clubs also abound. Equestrian sports are in vogue and badminton and squash are standard weekend pastimes. Americans may be interested to know that baseball and softball are also popular.

Another surprisingly well represented sport in terms of registered members is gymnastics. Many young girls take part and although there are relatively few great Dutch gymnasts at international level, perhaps there will be in a few years time as a result of current trends.

Indoor sports are part of many peoples’ daily lives, with hardly enough venues for all the players wanting to play. Besides the ubiquitous indoor football, volleyball is in a healthy state while basketball and handball are also widely practiced. Part of the popularity of indoor sports may be put down to the lack of space for field sports in general.

Sailing, boxing, table tennis, athletics and swimming are important minority sports and more recently there has been more interest in Formula One on television, although the Dutch GP track at Zandvoort is not currently used for F1 races.