Love him or loathe him – Dutch sports journalist and commentator Mart Smeets is at the very heart of professional sportsmanship. “I live sports, I breathe sports and I think sports” is what he firmly states as we find ourselves at the ‘Double Dutch’ event in London, organised by Litro Magazine and the Dutch Embassy, on a particularly sunny afternoon last week. Indeed, during the 30 minute hosted session, he speaks with great passion and conviction about ‘his’ sports and does not mince words on the topic of doping. The WheelerWatchers report.
No bright-coloured sweater, but a well-cut suit. No Dutch spoken, but English. Yet, it is unmistakeably him: tall, with the white hair and fashionable glasses. It is a bit odd to see him here, with no relation to Dutch television and without the NOS Studio Sport tune that usually plays prior to him speaking. “It is such a joy!” he refers to commentating for the NOS on speed skating since he just returned from Moscow. “We Dutch are born with it and we like it so much because we’re good at it. When my grandfather was 87 years old, he was still skating.” It is certainly evident that sports run in the DNA of the Smeets family. Being a professional basketball player himself before going into broadcasting in 1974, he proudly mentions his two children Nynke and Tjerk and his daughter-in-law Minke who have achieved outstanding results in softball, baseball and field hockey respectively.
Since we are at the home ground to the Olympic Games that are only a few months away, talks naturally shift towards his profound love for procycling. “Something funny will happen in the Olympics this year. There is a man that goes by the name of Mark Cavendish…” He pauses. “This man is very likely to become the Olympic champion. He will provide a boost to British cycling. England has never been a bicycle country, but he will change that. You have Belgium, France, Italy… all the catholic countries. Cycling is a catholic sport. There is the ‘I-did-it-because-everyone-did-it’ mentality.” As the session host and Editor in Chief of Litro Magazine wishes to elaborate on the subject, the Contador verdict is questioned.
“Nothing is proven, but here is my idea: doping is an ingredient. Some doping is part of sportsmanship. When I was an athlete, did I use doping? Yes, I used doping. Was it fair? No, it was not fair. I popped one of those funny red pills offered by the team doctor. Did it help? No! If you believe in it, then it probably helps you, but it did absolutely nothing for me.”
Everyone in the room is silently intrigued as Smeets continues his monologue. “The human body uses 6-7 kilos a day in the Tour de France. How would you gain this back during such a race? Now, most of the people were not using, but there were people doing it. And, we all want heroes. We all want them to be good.” As the words slowly but surely fill the room, it is concluded that a man is still free in his choice and that this discussion could, without a doubt, go on for ages to follow.
Smeets is then eager to share some more insights as he is asked about his other great love: music. He starts speaking about the 198 riders he questioned in the early ’90s about what music they would listen to during cycling. “Almost all of them answered Dire Straits. It appeared that their songs were just perfect for pedalling in a certain rhythm. There were a few exceptions though. One guy called Marc Sergeant said he listened to Mozart – he could listen for 6 hours straight to Mozart! And there was Andy Bishop, who told me he played the flugelhorn concerts of Bach!” Smeets tells, visibly amused. Nearing the end, the familiar question about Smeets’ relationship with Lance Armstrong is put forward. The answer is loud and clear:
“I met a man’s man. Whether he used something or not I do not know. The only thing I do know is that he won the Tour de France seven times. And, he is the chairman of an organisation that fights cancer. I work for it and I believe in it. They have not found anything that proves him to be guilty.”
Finally, Smeets looks back at his previous Olympic experiences and turns a bit nostalgic. He vividly remembers the days in Lillehammer during the Winter Olympics of 1994 and he has fond memories of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney where he “mingled with so many people.” His predictions for the London Olympics? Track- and road cycling will be for the Brits and drinking will be an Olympic sport during the night time. “Just relax, be yourself and enjoy. Go out and party!” he enthusiastically puts it. As it was announced earlier last year, Smeets will retire after the Olympics and work as a freelancer for the NOS, though to a lesser extent and in a different capacity. Until that time, the WheelerWatchers will definitely enjoy his presence on Dutch television. Especially during the Tour de France. May we say that? Yes, we may say that.