When the Invictus Games take place in The Hague next Spring (16-22 April 2022), it will be almost six years since Conny Wenting and Mart de Kruif first discussed the idea of bringing the event to the Netherlands. Our enthusiasm has never waned, even during the pandemic. We look forward to it more and more.”
Conny Wenting and Mart de Kruif, CEO and chairman, respectively, of Invictus Games The Hague 2020, are the driving forces behind the event for physically and mentally wounded soldiers. They had to make the brave decision to postpone the Invictus Games The Hague in both 2020 and 2021. That wasn’t even a difficult question; with an event like this, you put the athlete, and his or her family and friends, first. If the event cannot take place in a normal way for that group, then you should not want it.”
The postponement, although it was of course particularly uncertain and thus confusing times for the athletes, also had a positive side effect. “We have used the extra time well, the programme has only deepened. We feel that the Invictus Games in April 2022 will have an even greater social impact, that the legacy will be even greater. We are going to do even more wonderful things next year than we already had in mind.”
More on those plans later, first we go back in time. At the end of 2016, Conny Wenting, strategist and coach, and Lieutenant General b.d. Mart de Kruif, after the idea came up at a dinner, took the plunge. They contacted the Invictus Games Foundation in London and assessed their chances of bringing the event to the Netherlands.
How did it start, where did the idea come from?
Conny: ,,I got to know Mart when I was teaching the Sportsleadership programme, a leadership programme for people working in the top sports environment, at Nyenrode Business University in 2016. I was looking for someone who could give an inspiring pitch about ‘Leadership in combat’, and thus ended up with Mart via Pim Versteeg. He had brought along Jaaike Brandsma for his presentation. She lost a leg in a suicide attack in Afghanistan and during her rehabilitation she participated in the Invictus Games, where she won the shot put. In Rio, she participated in the Paralympic Games as a sitting volleyball player. Her story inspired enormously and was a fantastic example of the power of sport in general and specifically during rehabilitation. When, after the course, we exchanged views on how Defence supports its men during and after missions, I asked Mart the question: should we bring the Invictus Games to the Netherlands? To which he said, without a hint of arrogance, ‘Why not. If we don’t succeed, nobody will.'”
You then contacted the Invictus Games Foundation and were initially unsuccessful.
Conny: “That’s right. Initially, there was the idea in London to organise the Invictus Games once, that was in 2014, then due to its great success the ball started rolling and successful editions followed in Canada, America and Australia. A final, fifth edition in London would complete the circle in their eyes. We had different ideas, we knew from experience how powerful sport is as part of any rehabilitation. This event had an enormous value and as far as we were concerned it should continue. If necessary, we will pick it up ourselves, here in the Netherlands, I said. Fortunately, at the end of 2017 the message came that we could come and talk to London after all. At the beginning of 2018, we had a good talk and it turned out that we were allowed to submit a bid. However, that had to be submitted quickly. Immediately after that conversation, Mart and I dove into a London pub and started to append, call and email a lot of people in our network.”
Mart: ,,Three crazy weeks followed. In the meantime, I had taken on the role of project leader of the 75th anniversary committee and we had already clearly envisaged that the link with the Invictus Games in the Netherlands in 2020 would be wonderful. In those three weeks, we came up with dozens of plans, tore through the entire country and made a lot of phone calls. We had to get guarantees and declarations of intent, for example from NOS that they intended to broadcast the Invictus Games. And we couldn’t do it without the support of the Prime Minister. Mark Rutte was immediately enthusiastic and gave Defence a mandate. Arranging all these things in the Netherlands within three weeks, and then putting together a bid book within that period is no mean feat. But it was enormously inspiring.
If you had known that there would be a long road ahead, with even two postponements, would you have started?
Conny: “Absolutely. It was a bumpy road, so what. We do it for a good cause. This is an incredibly rewarding job. You want nothing more than to be part of, and to make a positive contribution to, the recovery process of a group of soldiers and their families. We must not forget that a physical or mental injury not only has a huge impact on the person concerned, but also on the circle of friends and family around them.
You quickly envisioned what the Invictus Games in the Netherlands should look like.
Conny: “Definitely. We quickly decided to work with the sports marketing agency TIG Sports, which has enormous expertise in organising large events. Together, we quickly realised that it is all about a unique event and that you have to put a lot of creativity into it. And that, even more than in any other tournament, you have to put the sportsman in the centre. We noticed at other editions that the sometimes large distances between the various accommodations detracted from the intimate atmosphere. Of course, we are dealing with a relatively small number of athletes, who will drown if the park is too big. That is why we quickly decided to concentrate everything on the Zuiderpark in The Hague. I remember that after the first contacts in London, we immediately drove to the Zuiderpark and concluded that we did not need to look any further. A compact event, that has always been our approach. Moreover, we kept in mind that you should not do anything to the participants that would jeopardise their recovery process. Organising a fireworks display, when you know that a large number of the participants will have a potential re-experience of a war situation, is not appropriate. No, it would be better to aim for a loose, festival-like vibe at the Zuiderpark.”
The participants, family and friends, but also the ‘ordinary’ spectator have been considered.
Conny: “The Invictus Games The Hague 2020 should also be a fun day out for everyone. This event also has an explicit social character. It shows that sport is a wonderful and powerful part of a rehabilitation process, each part shows the resilience and flexibility of the participants. They are not pitiful, but powerful.
Mart: ,,But you can show so much more. Like: what does Defence actually do? What are veterans? And how does an institution like the army contribute to freedom and peace? That freedom comes for a reason. There are people who make sacrifices for that freedom, our freedom. Sometimes they pay a price for it. That they, and their loved ones, take a step in their recovery at an event like the Invictus Games is beautiful to see. It shows that man’s resistance is actually unlimited.”
Conny: ,,If you manage to unite all of that in one complex, and not with a whole series of venues, we think you can also add the typical Dutch word ‘gezellig’ to it.”
Was it easy for you to explain the story of the Invictus Games, which is after all a sports event with a very specific target group and set-up?
Conny: ,,Generating name recognition for the Invictus Games, that was important. To conclude partnerships and sell tickets for the sports events towards the end of the year. Of course they knew the story at the Ministry of Defence, but the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport was also one of the founding partners. There, and in a number of other places, we demonstrated once again what a social impact the Invictus Games can and will have. From 9 May 2019, the day that Prince Harry was here and we were still a year ahead of the original date, that became a lot easier.”
Mart: “It’s especially important that you avoid people talking about world records, about top times, about winning, when they talk about the Invictus Games. That is exactly what makes this event different from the Paralympics. The sporting achievements at the Invictus Games are relative, not absolute. It’s not about trying to beat the world record for bench press, it’s about – if you achieve 50 kilos at bench press – being happy with your achievement. If you get to 50 kilos for the first time in your life, and you do it better than in the training sessions, then you have achieved your goal. What is a big difference with the Paralympics is that at the Invictus Games, in addition to the physically injured, there are also many mentally injured. That has an impact on everyone. But beware, once you are in the ring, on the field, they are all athletes. They are very serious, very conscientious about it. Incidentally, in some cases top performances are recorded – in the terminology of top-class sport – and Paralympic records are also broken during the Invictus Games. But that is not the essence. It is about overcoming yourself and doing so in an environment that does not judge you for who you are, but appreciates you for who you are. It is important to us that all participants feel at home and that they feel that everyone understands what they may be suffering from and why they are at the Invictus Games.”
What always comes back is that camaraderie, camaraderie, plays such a big role, at and leading up to the Invictus Games.
Conny: “At the Invictus Games, you certainly experience emotional moments that are the epitome of camaraderie. One that is sharply in my mind is a swimming competition in Sydney in 2018. A competition over 50 metres. A participant is missing two legs and an arm, but still manages to compete. The winner of the heat is seen swimming back to the competitor who barely manages to get across; they swim together and the whole field and the spectators support this person during this top performance. The sound is deafening and the emotions are visible to everyone. Those are the moments you think of years later.
Mart: “In fact, the camaraderie as we know it from the army should not be unique, it should apply to all of us. But it is true that in the army you learn from day one that the group is more important than yourself. There is no other way. If you, to put it simply, risk your life to carry out an assignment, you have to be sure that you will be rescued by the rest if you are wounded. You must be able to trust your buddies blindly. This maxim, that you first ‘give something to the team’ before you get something in return, is also evident during the Invictus Games, between the various delegations. At the opening ceremony, each country is still on its own, but you see this fade away during the week. Then you see that camaraderie also goes beyond borders, that those who have the same experiences like to share them with each other. That creates a unique setting.”
Conny: ”That loyalty, as a non-military outsider, is wonderful to see. I have a business background and, from a leadership perspective, I wish you would see that a bit more in the corporate environment.
What should be the legacy of these Invictus Games?
Mart: ,,As far as we are concerned, that is in many areas. For example, we would like to see more attention paid to family and friends. They are essential in the rehabilitation of physically or mentally wounded soldiers, but in fact they are essential for everyone. It is so important to have a support network when something happens to you. The recognition of the importance of a home front is something we want to make even clearer. That is important, also in health care. Just as, after the possible death of a loved one, partner support is important. It is important that we not only pay attention to this during the event and name it, but that it also remains afterwards. It is important that future generations can also benefit from it.”
Conny: “What we have also been able to achieve, and we would not have been able to achieve this if the event had not been postponed twice, is that we will be organising an even more sustainable event than we wanted to beforehand. We have simply had more time to strike stakes, to connect parties. We can work even more cost-effectively, have even more stories to tell, even more partners to enthuse. As a result, the Zuiderpark will soon have an infrastructure that forms the basis for future sustainable events. That, too, is a good feeling.
Mart: “If we are talking about social impact, we also think it is important to pay attention to the youth of today. There is an educational programme for young people in groups 7 and 8 of primary school. They will first talk to a veteran in their class and then come to the Zuiderpark during the Invictus Games. Sharing knowledge with the generations of tomorrow, from the military domain, but also from aid agencies, and from the world of adapted sports, is important.”
Conny: “The power of sport in society is also an important theme. As far as we are concerned, it deserves more attention. Sport is also about inclusion, about getting people out of their isolation. At the Invictus Games, sport invites people to talk about their mental problems. We can use the Games to make it easier to discuss mental health in society. People’s resilience is great, but they need to be able to talk about it.”