What was your research about?
“It’s basically about discussions on the status of athletes representing countries other than their birth country at the Olympics. This happens fairly often with Kenyans representing Qatar, and back in 2012 there was a major discussion on 61 athletes who presented Great Britain in London but had been born abroad. The question asked was, ‘Are these people actually British at all?’ The media referred to them as ‘plastic Brits’. People assume that ever since 2000, huge numbers of athletes have represented countries other than their birth country, and that many athletes switch nationalities. First of all, I put this into a historical perspective, to determine whether that is actually the case. Then I tried to determine why the subject attracts such a debate.”
Did you manage to find an unambiguous answer to your question?
“Yes, I did. Athletes have always represented countries other than their birth country. They’ve done so at least since World War II, but there are also stories from ancient Greece stating that athletes switched city-states. In 1948 the percentage was 7 per cent. Now it’s 9 per cent. Yet people have a completely different perception of it. As far as that’s concerned, as a sociologist, I’ve tried to debunk the myth that the Olympics have become migratory.”
Is that the main conclusion you drew?
“It’s definitely the conclusion journalists seem to find the most interesting. But I’m much more interested in the question as to who can represent a nation and on what basis. You see, the criteria used for that are very inconsistent. If you’re a black athlete and you were born in a different country, you will attract a lot of discussion. Whereas if you’re white and represent Great Britain even though you were born in Germany, you are far less likely to have your every move scrutinised. As far as that’s concerned, there’s a racist component to the debate.”
Why is it that this is attracting so much discussion now of all times?
“Judging from all the articles I’ve analysed, there has indeed been more of a controversy. It’s always been controversial, but it wasn’t as hotly debated as it is now, because the discussion now focuses on the nation state. People think about the world in terms of nation states. The world consists of countries, and everyone has a nationality, which means they have a national identity. This is how people seek to give meaning to the world. Globalisation and migration have caused that idea to erode. As a result, there’s a lot of debate in our society about assimilation, migration and national identity. And now we can see the same thing in sport. People ask questions such as, ‘To which country do they really belong? Can they actually prove that they belong to the country they represent?’ Some people have begun to believe that the nation state must be protected, by keeping competitions authentic rather than by allowing them to grow into a big commercial circus. Even though the nation state is a concept that we have to tell each other every day in order to keep it alive. Sport is an important medium with which people reproduce and communicate that idea.”
Why did you want to get a PhD?
“Actually, I never intended to get one. I first did a Bachelor’s in business administration, but I didn’t care for that much. I was interested in city life, so I did a Master’s in sociology. After that I worked as a tutor for a while, which was the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had. But in order to be able to continue teaching, you need a PhD.”
In your acknowledgements you mentioned the inner demons that negatively affected you during your PhD research.
“I suffer from anxiety and mood swings, which are always there in the background. Yet doing the research itself was easy. I was done in 3.5 years. I worked until 2pm every day and then I’d stop and take a long walk. That’s a strategy I’m a fan of in general. It’s very good for your brain to relax and create new connections, rather than just sitting in front of your computer all day.”
In your stellingen (statements and propositions submitted along with a PhD dissertation – ed.) you raised some questions about the way in which academics travel.
“Some academics travel the whole planet, going from one conference to the next. Surely that’s at odds with our ambition to make the world a better place? What are they doing at all those conferences? Who benefits from that, other than they themselves? I myself haven’t attended a single conference.”
Who is on the cover of your dissertation?
“It’s Mathieu van der Poel, a Belgian cyclist raised in Flanders who competes for the Netherlands. So that fits in nicely with the theme of my dissertation, but it’s a lot more personal than that. This might sound pathetic, but I’m such a fan of his that I was happy whenever he won. Looking forward all week to all those cycling races shown on TV on Saturdays helped me get through my PhD research.”