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Sports and Leisure in the Netherlands

The Dutch enjoy nothing more than spending quality time with friends and family and prefer sports and leisure activities, where everyone can get involved, above all others. They sum up the feeling of being together as ‘gezellig’. Gezellig is a uniquely Dutch word that is challenging to translate accurately. It is often compared to the English word ‘cosy’, yet somehow manages to encompass a much broader range of meanings. It is used not only to describe team pursuits, but also convivial surroundings and, in certain instances, people. Anyone who spends even a small amount of time in the Netherlands will rapidly become acquainted with the word and will somehow learn to distinguish its subtle nuances, even if an exact translation eludes them!

Popular Sports in the Netherlands

Soccer is one of the preferred team sports in the Netherlands. These days it is enjoyed by both boys and girls, who are actively encouraged to play from a young age. It is also a popular spectator sport partly due to the unmitigated success of the ‘Nederlandse elftal’ (the national football team). Holland won the European Championship in 1988 and more recently finished runners up (for the second time) in the 2010 World Cup. The Netherlands is also proud of its talented players, whose swelling ranks include such footballing greats as Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and the charismatic Ruud Gullit.

Ice-skating is another favourite sport in the Netherlands and an intrinsic part of Dutch culture. References to ice skating date back to 1225 and the famous Dutch Masters of the Golden Age, frequently captured traditional Dutch skating scenes on canvas. The most celebrated national ice skating competition is the prestigious Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour), a punishing 200 km race held on the natural ice of Friesland. The Netherlands competes at the highest international level too, with acclaimed Dutch skaters such as Falko Zandstra, Yvonne van Gennip, Ireen Wüst and Sven Kramer having all brought home some silver wear.

The Dutch are also avid cyclists and road cycling in particular enjoys a huge following in the Netherlands. The nation has done exceptionally well in the most celebrated of races including the Tour de France, the Vuelta D’Espana and the challenging Giro D’Italia. Legendary Dutch cyclist Joop Zoetemelk completed the Tour de France a remarkable sixteen times out of sixteen attempts, an unbeaten record even to this day. As well as finishing first, he also took second place an incredible six times, earning him the affectionate nickname ‘eeuwige tweede’ or ‘eternally second’!

A large part of the Netherlands is actually water, which could explain why swimming appears to be in the Dutch blood! Dutch children learn to swim at an extremely young age and it is not uncommon to see parents with their newborn babies at the local pool! The country boasts several champions including Pieter van den Hoogenband who took Olympic gold three times and won the European Championships an amazing sixteen times. In recognition of his impressive achievements, Pieter was awarded the Dutch equivalent of an OBE, called the ‘Orde van de Nederlandse Leeuw Knight’ and perhaps less memorably, was named official sponsor of Calvé, the nations favourite peanut butter!

The Dutch also enjoy some relatively obscure sports such as ‘korfbal’, ‘fierljeppen’, ‘klootschieten’ and ‘kaatsen’, that are almost unheard of outside of the Netherlands. Korfball, devised by a teacher from Amsterdam in 1902, is similar to basketball in that the chief aim is to lob a ball through a net, but differs in that it features mixed teams of men and women. Kaatsen, another ball sport this time from Friesland, is not unlike the game of handball practised in the Basque regions of southern France and northern Spain. Fierljeppen meanwhile evolved from a practical technique used to cross the pretty canals and rivers of Friesland. It is now a highly competitive sport, where rather like pole vaulting, competitors employ a long pole to help them leap across vast stretches of water. It is fascinating to watch the participants, who stealthily climb the pole throughout the jump to increase momentum and ultimately extend their reach.

Popular Dutch Leisure Activities

The roots of contemporary Dutch society can be traced back to the ‘verzuling’, a self imposed segregation of communities by political ideology and religious belief, that endured until the swinging sixties. Every ‘zuil’ (pillar or section of society) had its own clubs where Dutch people of a similar background came together to enjoy a range of leisure activities such as chess, embroidery and music. Each club boasted its own brass band, known as ‘fanfare’ in the Netherlands, which showcased at local festivals and carnivals. A famous comedy made by respected Dutch director Bert Haanstra in 1958, focused on this brass band culture in what is considered a landmark film in Dutch cinema. Although there is no verzuiling today, the Dutch are still avid members of a myriad of clubs and societies geared towards an infinite variety of pursuits, from salsa dancing to traditional clog making!

By far the most ‘gezellig’ way to while away a dark, winters evening in the Netherlands, is by playing cards or board games with close family and friends, perhaps gathered around an open fire and with a glass of beer or ‘jenever’ (Dutch gin) and some tasty ‘borrelnootjes’ (nuts) to hand. Board games such as ‘Mens Erger Je Niet’ (comparable to Ludo) and the Dutch version of Monopoly, where players vie for the exclusive Kalverstraat and Leidsestraat in Amsterdam, have been enjoyed for generations.

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