“There are countries where you are worshipped as a World or Olympic champion in judo. You are treated like a king and will never have to work a day in your life again. In the Netherlands you receive €30,000 from the government on which you're taxed as well, you get a ribbon from the king and you can appear once at one of the evening talk shows. Beyond that, no one will ever hear from or talk about you again.”
Is Jur Spijkers, the man who will be competing for the next 1.5 years for a ticket for the Olympic Games in the heavyweight category, sour about the amount of attention and recognition that judo receives in the Netherlands? If you read the introduction above, you can certainly detect a degree of frustration. But, that is certainly not how we would describe Spijkers.
A open and honest chat
Last week Warrior Code had the opportunity to speak virtually with the judoka Spijkers, who became European champion for the first time last May, about life as a judoka in the Netherlands. Judo is a sport from which many other disciplines can learn quite a bit from a sporting point of view, but is actually financially uninteresting to start with. It was a candid conversation.
As you could read earlier this week in our conversation with Julie Beurskens, the attention for sport in the Netherlands is not very good. And Spijkers can only confirm that: “The Netherlands has a very rich history of producing talented and successful judokas. The most recent examples are of course Henk Grol and Dennis van der Geest. Yet judo only seems to gain a place in people's attention once every four years when the Olympics come around. That's too bad."
Unfortunately, less attention for the sport also means fewer sponsors and therefore less money. Spijkers has an A-status with the NOC NSF - which means that as an athlete you should normally be eligible for a place in the top 8 during a World Cup, Olympic Games or another international top sporting event - and receives a salary that he can get by. The only problem is that the contract he has with the union is not seen as permanent. After all, no results means no A-status and top sport.
The implications of this are that the bank sees someone like Spijkers as an independent entrepreneur. This means that he is not eligible for a mortgage and therefore cannot actually buy a house unless he can put the full amount on the table at once: “That is indeed a very difficult story,” says Spijkers. Fortunately, he has a girlfriend who has her own business, and luckily it runs well, so they were able to buy something together. “But if the bank looks at you from the outside and you are only two independent entrepreneurs on paper, you don't have a good starting position, to put it nicely.”
To boost the income, Spijkers recently hired someone with whom he also looks at potential sponsors, but admits that it remains a difficult story: “people promise mountains of gold, but in the end little comes of it.”
Kickboxing, on the other hand, can no longer be ignored from the mainstream. Rico Verhoeven and Alistair Overeem regularly sit at the talk show tables. Notoriety and also controversies inevitably generate more attention and thus income. The only controversial thing the judo world may have seen in the past four years is the discussion around Roy Meyer and Henk Grol, about who would go to Tokyo (Olympic Games 2020), widely reported in the media. Since then it has been quiet in the judo camp.
Does Spijkers think that he should profile himself and judo as a sport more in the media indirectly, with the aim of making the sport more financially attractive for sponsors? “I would definitely like to do that more. I think I am fairly recognizable as a heavyweight and my Brabant accent also helps. I hope people see me as that down-to-earth Brabander who calls the spade a spade and is therefore interesting to listen to. On the other hand, whether I like it or not, I don't have time to sit on the television programs during the week, so to speak, because I'm working out.
Although Spijkers is a fan of Rico Verhoeven and thinks his results speak for themselves, he also learned that his first title defense in a year has been postponed at least until after the summer due to a knee injury. “Nothing against him (Rico) but I do notice that he has just been a lot less active in the past two years. Perhaps due to the loss of concentration, more injuries occur, your recovery is less if you are busy with other things. I understand that it is very tempting and you also have to think about it because your top sports career will come to an end, but I would find it difficult to combine a TV career with judo now because I would then have the feeling that I am doing judo short.”
The question is also whether the sport itself is helped if it is hyped up in the media and kickboxers are intensively involved in things outside the sport. There's no arguing that controversial moments like press conferences getting out of hand or fighters challenging each other on social media can count on a mouth watering audience.
Kickboxers can afford these controversies because they don't have to run into each other in training anyway. Judokas cannot avoid each other. Spijkers: “We are not MMA participating in trash talk. So as much as the media may want Roy (Meyer) and I to fight it out verbally in the media who will be allowed to go to Paris later, I really have to disappoint. I told Roy: we don't have to be best friends, but I don't have to argue with you."
He continues: “It is also very normal to compete against each other in training because we also need each other to get better. I train with Roy and I think we both think the best will eventually go to Paris. The results will speak for themselves and we don't have to hurt each other on purpose."
So how do we take stock? It is very good that judokas are not incited to do strange things or make strange statements because, for example, commercial interests play too important a role. It partly ensures that judokas, no matter how much they are in competition with each other, can work well together and understand that they need each other to get better. A very commendable attitude. The other side of the coin is that judo is less in the spotlight and it is therefore harder for the athletes to make it financially attractive for them.
We conclude with a statement by Spijkers, which we think describes the judo mindset well: “Act normally, then you act crazy enough and I will finish you off on the mat or in the ring.”