The biggest defeat on the part of Team Great Britain in the London 2012 Olympics was to the Dutch. More specifically, it was to the color orange. What had been set up as a must-win for Team GB – as it was their home turf and a return to a men’s hockey semifinal match after a quarter of a century – ended up being a sound defeat, with a score of 9-2. The Dutch reveled heartily, the fans and athletes alike dressed head to toe in orange.
Was this color orange the charm that led to the defeat of Team GB? Should the win be chalked up to the Dutch blinding the Team GB athletes with their overpowering orange uniforms?
Obviously the reasons were much deeper, as the Netherlands has a longer standing focus on sport than the UK has ever had. In fact, one of the ways that the UK marketed the Games to their public was to encourage a tradition of sports and emphasizing the importance of sports to a country. Colin Jackson, an ambassador for International Inspiration, London 2012’s international sports legacy program, wrote about this goal before the Olympics:
When most people think about London 2012, it’s often about issues such as transport, security or the elite athletes themselves. But there is a side to the Games that can often be overlooked. Sport has the power to change lives and empower young people. Sport can bring schools and communities together, promote a healthy lifestyle and give young people an incentive to attend school regularly.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands has sport tied directly into their everyday lives, with field hockey just one of a variety of sports.
For the health-conscious Dutch, sport is not just something to watch and cheer about. Sport and all forms of physical activity are a cornerstone of a happy and healthy life for them. Quite uniquely for the world, almost all Dutch primary school children go to school by bicycle or foot, which lays a solid foundation for their sporty adult lives.
How does this relate to the color orange? It ties to another problem – Team GB is a national construct compared to the color orange for the Dutch. Rather, it’s a much younger concept in comparison. Team GB was not the rousing call for UK sports teams until London 2012, with little opportunity for use afterwards. Meanwhile, Dutch fans were swathed in orange for centuries beforehand, as orange is the color of the Dutch Royal family – the House of Oranje-Nassau, which dates back to Willem van Oranje (William of Orange). The lucky coincidence between the name and the color was discovered later, when the fruit was introduced to the Western world. In a loud display of nationalism, the Dutch regularly paint their streets orange for Koninginnedag (“Queen’s Day”) on April 30, commemorating the country’s (former) Queen’s birthday.
At London 2012, this love of the color orange was brought to the forefront – and it infected not just Netherlands. After the London Olympic opening ceremony, the Dutch athletes were regularly on best-dressed lists. While there was an emphasis on the color, it was overpowering but “unmissable.”
The difficulty of using orange in a stylish rather than garish manner was lauded as borne from a uniquely “Dutch courage.” As one reporter put it, “You can’t pull off orange pants. I can’t pull off orange pants. Only Dutch athletes can pull off orange pants.” By connecting their nation to a color – a loud but pleasing but particular color – the Netherlands stood out in a very fashionable way. It was literally stylish to support the Netherlands. The Dutch themselves identify so strongly with the color orange that a scientific study found that the relationship between orange and The Netherlands can influence person perception – wearing orange makes you seem more patriotic about being Dutch.
What did this mean at the Olympics? Fans from the Netherlands was more easily identified than any other country. In fact, “blocks of them [were] visible in the background at many events,” not only at sporting events, but all around London, coming together at the Holland Heineken House, the Dutch hospitality house. The hospitality houses were national cultural centers set up around London to celebrate the nations’ cultures, watch Olympic events where the country was involved, and connect with other Olympic athletes. Accordingly, the Dutch house was drenched in orange, albeit with some Heineken green thanks to corporate sponsorship.
The London 2012 Olympics saw some of the largest compilations of nationalism in the world. But the color orange is special. It is Dutch, but anyone can wear orange and identify with the Dutch. This easy accessibility during London 2012 correlates the Dutch with a special comradeship not afforded to other countries. But there’s another element – the emphasis on triumph. The color, separate from the national flag (which is red, white, and blue), distinguishes the Netherlands from the national colors with similar flags, tying it to history that supersedes the usual bearings of nationalism. Wearing head to toe orange on the field and in the stands illustrates a whole, unified team both on and off the field. The men’s field hockey team went on to retain their gold medal status, as they did in the women’s field hockey finals. It meant that Team GB had no chance in the Netherlands and Great Britain match, as it was “a British side totally outclassed by an irresistible orange force.”