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Captain of 'Young Holland' blew his own trumpet

Biography of Pim Mulier, founding father of modern sport
02 March 2015

The founding father of modern sport in the Netherlands: this is how Pim Mulier has gone down in history. He was the brains behind the Elfstedentocht (Eleven cities tour) and the founder of the Dutch Football Association. But he was also a barrel of contradictions, who largely blew his own trumpet. These are the conclusions of Daniël Rewijk, who will defend his PhD thesis at the University of Groningen on 12 March, just two days after the 150th anniversary of Mulier’s birth. ‘Mulier played an active role in promoting his own image as the founder of modern sport,’ claims Rewijk. ‘But I also show why the public was so receptive to this.’

In his biography of Willem Johan Herman (Pim) Mulier (1865-1954), Daniël Rewijk paints a picture that goes beyond the usual accounts. Mulier’s life encapsulates several crucial late-nineteenth-century contradictions: regional tradition and international development; class awareness and increasing democracy; international networks and nationalism; conservatism and an urge to reform. ‘Pim Mulier is often referred to as the founder of modern sports,’ says Rewijk. ‘I paint a bigger picture. His involvement with sport was fuelled by his social, cultural and political convictions, which were far from consistent. Mulier wasn’t always the revered founder we make him out to be.’

Pim Mulier
Pim Mulier

Importance of Pim Mulier

According to Rewijk, Mulier’s importance lies mainly in his vision of sport and his influence on other people’s ideas about modern body culture. ‘To him, sport was an instrument of nationalism: it contributed towards the strength, vitality and character of “Young Holland”. A fit population with a keen sense of responsibility, would be able to preserve the Netherlands as a colonial power, and possibly even expand its influence with a colony in South Africa.’

New body culture

Body culture in the Netherlands underwent dramatic changes during the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century. Major social changes led to a new type of citizenship, in which new demands were made on the body. Traditional sporting pleasures changed, and well-to-do young people took up new sports from abroad. Mulier, himself an elite figure, introduced several new sports. One of them was football, which would later become a highly popular mass sport. But he was also keen to edify the masses: sport only had true meaning for the masses if it reflected the manners and behaviour of the elite. It was all about the codes of the sporting gentleman. ‘Unfortunately for him, his ideals were gradually eroding in the world of sport,’ explains Rewijk. ‘In addition, his efforts were not taken seriously by the conservative layer of the elite. Contemporaries with a successful career in politics or business garnered more respect than Mulier, much to his annoyance. His own social prestige was firmly nailed to the sports pillar. This is what elevated him to the status of the great sporting pioneer at official functions and events.’

Mulier on ice
Mulier on ice

Sculptor of his own myth

After 1910, Mulier became increasingly disillusioned and turned his back on the rapid changes taking place in society. He became a reactionary, and grabbed every opportunity to rant about the ‘excesses’ of contemporary life, such as cars and abstract art. He entrenched himself in a lifestyle that emphasized the past, protected from the ongoing advance of ‘the people’, mass media and rough manners. This is the period in which his image as founding father of Dutch sport was forged. Rewijk: ‘Mulier himself played an active role in creating the myth about the origins of modern sport. The subsequent aggrandizement of the part he played was largely prompted by a need on the part of his peers for a “Great Man”, a man who had instigated important change – in this case the advent of modern sport in the Netherlands.’ Thanks to continuous repetition of the reputation thus created, the Mulier myth became firmly ingrained in our collective memory. It is only fairly recently that Mulier’s achievements have been regularly questioned.

Curriculum vitae

Daniël Rewijk read History. He conducted his research in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen. His supervisors are Prof. Y.B. Kuiper (University of Groningen) and Prof. M. van Bottenburg (Utrecht University). Rewijk works as a history teacher in secondary education and as a sports historian at the Mulier Institute. 10 March (two days before the PhD ceremony) is the 150th anniversary of Mulier’s birth. The commercial edition of Rewijk’s thesis will be published by Bornmeer , ISBN 978-90-5615-345-8.

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Daniël Rewijk, d

Last modified:07 April 2021 1.53 p.m.
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