Dutch sport struggles with revelations of widespread sexual abuse
Renowned cyclist reveals how she suffered decades of abuse during her career
The Dutch cycling federation said it had opened an investigation as a result of the Marijn De Vries allegations and praised Petra De Bruin’s “bravery” for coming forward to support her. Photograph: Tim De Waele/Corbis/Getty Images
While Formula One sensation, Max Verstappen, and Sanne Wevers, the first Dutch gymnast to win Olympic gold, were named sports personalities of the year in the Netherlands over Christmas, there was another sporting name on everyone’s lips – reminding us that fame can have its dark side too.
The name was that of iconic cyclist, Petra de Bruin, now 54, who won the women’s road race world championships in 1979, forcing East Germany into an embarrassing second place in the medals table – a Cold War feat for which she too received the accolade of sports personality of the year.
De Bruin was one of those stars the public loved from the start, not just because she proved herself a fearless performer in a physically gruelling and dangerous sport, but because she blazed a trail for other Dutch women cyclists, who still regularly outperform the world today.
A hero to her own generation and a role model to those who’ve followed, she’s someone to whom the Dutch sporting world has always listened. What she had to say last month, however, turned the public perception of her “glittering career” upside down.
Petra de Bruin revealed that she suffered decades of sexual abuse during her career as a cyclist – taken advantage of by everyone from her manager to a team mechanic to someone from the cycling federation to whom she turned for advice and who demanded, as she put it, “payment in kind”.
“It took me years and years to say what I am saying now, and it hurts so much”, the former world champion told national broadcaster, NOS.
“I’m 54 now, and I’ve felt grief every day because of it.”
More than a decade
The abuse started when she was a minor. One manager in particular, still unnamed, forced her to perform sexual acts against her will for more than a decade. “Nobody was allowed to touch me except for him,” she recalled.
Years after her career ended, De Bruin reported the manager’s abuse to the cycling federation – but the procedure which should have produced redress went nowhere.
The case went to mediation but was met, she says, by a wall of denial and intimidation from her abuser – leaving her feeling so “powerless” that she decided to abandon any further action.
Two things changed Petra de Bruin’s mind. The first was hearing about the historical child sex abuse allegations in UK football and the lengthening list of players who’ve gone public. Their bravery impressed her.
The second was closer to home, when another Dutch woman cyclist, Marijn de Vries, wrote about the sexual harassment, inappropriate touching, and intimidation she’d suffered as a professional rider between 2010 and 2015 – years after De Bruin had retired.
In the macho world of Dutch professional cycling, nothing, it appeared, had changed.
“I doubted myself,” De Vries wrote. “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want any fuss. And I was 30! I had a lot more life experience than my 18-year-old team-mates.”
As public outrage mounted, the cycling federation said it had opened an investigation as a result of the De Vries allegations and praised De Bruin’s “bravery” for coming forward to support her.
Then statistics emerged showing that the umbrella body for sport, the Dutch Sports Federation, had received 269 reports of unacceptable behaviour last year alone, everything from bribery to doping – 80 per cent of which involved sexual abuse.
Forced to concede
A federation spokesman was forced to concede: “We suspect that in reality the number of cases of sexual abuse is much higher. Unfortunately, not everyone reports it.”
Despite the growing evidence of a widespread problem, it then emerged that although the sports federation had what it claimed was “a blacklist of coaches”, there was only one name on it one – one single transgressor.
As sports minister Edith Schippers became embroiled in the debate, the federation finally announced a full-blown investigation into sexual abuse in Dutch sport dating back 30 years, in an attempt to attempt to reach any “silent victims” still reluctant to come forward.
There’s a new hotline, and guarantees of appropriate assistance, including help with making complaints against named individuals, regardless of the time elapsed.
As the year turns, the focus of the debate has moved to the fact that in the Netherlands – where so much operates on trust – it is still not obligatory for people working with children to have a certificate of appropriateness or good behaviour.
One thing is certain: as parents realise with horror how much was hidden in the past, an increasing number of sports clubs will make such certification a requirement in 2017.