Activist to perfection

On December 21, the European Court cleared the way for the Super League in top football. Partly based on case law that Olympic skating champion Mark Tuitert enforced against the International Skating Union. Who appealed against this, but - on the same day that the Super League was given the green light - was rejected by the same Court. In addition to Olympic gold, another historic triumph for Mark Tuitert. Jaap de Groot talks about this and much more in detail with this rebel, analyst, entrepreneur, writer and philosopher.
John van Helvert

Text: Jaap de Groot

Photography: John van Helvert

You have a personal assistant. Is this how you live?

“Last year I reached the limits of my own organizational strength. I could always oversee all my activities, but I had reached a point where it was no longer possible.”

What do you do then?

“Many lectures and I have written two books in the past three years. Drive now comes as Stoic Mindset in America and England. I also have a podcast, the company First Energy Gum and I report on skating competitions for the NOS.”

You are extremely active, which is also what your book Drive symbolizes. How many hours do you actually work per week?

“Between sixty and eighty hours, but I actually find it very difficult to think in terms of hours. Because what is work? I have an interview with you now and I'm going to a talk show tonight, but is that work? I have a podcast and I invite people who I find interesting. I can report on the skating. Takes me ten, twelve hours a day, but is that work? For me, everything is mixed up and to be honest, I wouldn't have it any other way.”

You like challenges. You had that as an athlete and now also as an entrepreneur. Take the 2015 lawsuit by the European Union against the International Skating Union ISU.

“That touched my sense of justice. You can establish rules, you can challenge athletes a little or forbid things. People still accept that. But ban people for life because they make a living from being athletes and want to expand that? While I wanted to be entrepreneurial, the ISU restricted it and threatened to take away what I love most in my life. Then you've come to the wrong place. Then I will fight.”

It resulted in case law, as a result of which the initiators of the Super League were vindicated by the European Court in their conflict with the European football union UEFA.

“In 2014, short tracker Niels Kersholt and I retired from top sport. We then came into contact with investors for an Ice Derby, a competition between long track skaters and short track skaters. The bottleneck was that we couldn't get participants because there were threats of lifetime bans. Then we went to EU Athletes, the union for athletes in the European Union. They said: 'This is not just a case for skaters, also for swimmers, golfers and many more athletes.' It was mainly about where the limits of a sports association's power towards its employees lie. It was a fundamental injustice and that is why we went to Brussels and not to the CAS, which only handles sports justice. Then we started campaigning. All messages were posted on Twitter, to which European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager eventually responded. The case was dealt with by the European Commission in 2017 and in Brussels they did not know what they saw. They are used to seeing a hundred lawyers from Google or Apple in front of them, but now there were only two athletes with two very passionate lawyers. It was very good that I was able to speak straight from my heart there. Especially compared to the lawyers of IOC and ISU. The result is a historic decision.”

You thus opened the door for Super Leagues in top sport. That ruling was on December 21, 2023, but on that day the European Court also ruled in your favor in the appeal filed by the ISU.

“It was a bit snowed under in terms of news that day because of the statement about the Super League. Our case is more of a legal story, which is a little more difficult to explain and a little less sexy. Yet this is seen as a very major case in sports law.”

 

“Sports associations have simply become companies that are making money”

 

The reaction of the ISU was also striking, which found it unfair to measure unions and companies against the same yardstick.

“Sports associations such as ISU, FIFA, UEFA and IOC have simply become companies that are making money. Sports associations have a somewhat strange place in society. The basis for sports are the associations that are affiliated with a federation. That is why a union is not actually a company, in some cases even a glorified government institution. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, but you do have to be able to separate things. There are now top athletes who are commercially active. That also did not happen without fits and starts, but everyone can now live with that. This should also be the case as soon as someone gets a commercial opportunity to take a sport to a higher or different level, whereby the risk also lies with that party. You should not place that financial risk on a sports association, but leave it to the market and give people and athletes the freedom to participate or not.”

How are you seen in the conservative skating world?

“The current generation of skaters is not concerned with this at all. They are doing well and sometimes perhaps too well. That is again in favor of such a cowardly rule that the ISU tried to impose at the time. If you just relax a little and keep everything as it is, where everyone can eat from the same rack, then no one will stand out. Kjeld Nuis recently said something about regulations surrounding competitions. In the middle of winter. If you really want to address this, you should sit down with the people in question as early as April. You can shout something in front of the camera, but you must have done the preliminary work and not express your own opinion inappropriately. That has no effect.”

As a top athlete you made notes about ideas and experiences in order to be able to implement them after your career.

“I've read books about philosophy, marketing, entrepreneurship. I think the great thing about entrepreneurship is taking risks yourself. Not just do it, but also do it with your own money and time. I looked for entrepreneurs who inspire me and read in sports science about things that have been indisputably proven. Like how everyone actually takes caffeine and athletes use it as a boost through coffee and chocolate. Before my Olympic final I also drank two cups of coffee and after 45 minutes it worked. Later I saw that American athletes did not take coffee before the competition, but chewing gum that contained caffeine. Caffeine is absorbed through the mouth through the mucous membranes within five to ten minutes, because it does not pass through the stomach-abdominal system. This way it works faster, more effectively and you can easily adjust the dosage. I then write down such an idea. Because maybe I can do something with it later after my career. Exactly what happened when I took the Sports Leadership course at Nyenrode. Someone in my group mentioned that a friend was developing an energy gum and then the flashback occurred to me. He gave me a few prototype gums, which I had a number of athletes test. When the response was enthusiastic, I came to the point of whether I should start as an entrepreneur. Ultimately, the developers of that eraser became my associates. The result of an idea I once wrote in a book.”

The Stoics developed a method to make good decisions. Do you ever make a wrong decision?

“Oh yes, regularly. It's not like I wake up every day and know exactly how everything works. According to Stoic philosophy, we have no influence on the real outcome. Sounds paradoxical for a top athlete who thinks about winning. But there are days when you have done everything right, three opponents are still better and you come fourth. Did you do it badly? I can now separate what is up to me and what is not up to me. What is up to me is what the Stoics arrive at. That is your own attitude, your character, the choices you make and why you make them. In classical philosophy, courage, temperance, justice and wisdom are the cardinal virtues. If I think something is unfair, I will speak out. I don't speak out about many other things, but injustice does. You have to have courage for that. Wisdom cannot be googled. Practical wisdom through things you experience in your life. In addition to courage, justice and wisdom, there is temperance. Moderation means self-discipline. Do you have the discipline to work hard for what you want to achieve? Do you have the discipline to live a healthy life? Do you have the discipline to moderate your own emotions? To recognize whether something is an ego battle or not? All fascinating things that get to the core of that philosophy. I have taken courses in Socratic questioning. A beautiful instrument that touches on Stoic philosophy. The process of not knowing something and therefore investigating what lies behind it. It makes you humble in the best sense of the word. It sounds like a contradiction, but that is precisely why I am inclined to set the bar high. It is not without reason that my book is called Drive. Dream big, challenge yourself. Engaging in life is a beautiful force. It also helps me to think of myself philosophically. Wisdom written down thousands of years ago by some very smart minds. These still apply and will still apply in two or three thousand years. By being brave, standing up for something and not being discouraged when something fails. That doesn't say anything about the attempt, it says something about the result. That is also duality. Go for the result, strive for the highest and still be completely okay if you don't achieve it. By which I don't mean that it doesn't affect me, because I'm disappointed if I don't win a match. But you shouldn't punish yourself, but be able to pick yourself up again.”

MASTERS Magazine

Curious about the rest of the article? How passion, craftsmanship and enthusiasm can excite the senses. That is the common thread of the spring edition of MASTERS, which takes you through many catering entrepreneurs: from the big winner of the recent Michelin ceremony, Jurgen van der Zalm van Vinkeles, to 'Horecatering Entrepreneur of the Year' Herman Hell. Speaking of Michelin: what is actually the impact of the green star, which saw the light of day in 2021? MASTERS posed that question to six prominent chefs. During a business lunch in Bridges restaurant, Dennis Albada Jelgersma explains how he farms as a winegrower and celebrates life: “Not with a block of cheese and a lukewarm pipe.” The appetizing creations in Culinaire Couture prove that a good outfit is like a feast for the eyes. David Yarrow's fascinating photography is also a feast for the eyes. We get into the Lucid Air Touring to experience whether the electric car can have the same effect on the senses as the combustion engine. And we enter heaven for audiophiles: Bang & Olufsen Brussee. In short: plenty of stimuli for the reading buds. A song to enjoy!

Order MASTERS Magazine #57 here