Dutch Olympic organizers defend participation of athlete convicted of rape

The Dutch Volleyball Association and Dutch Olympic organizers stand by their decision to send a convicted rape victim to the Paris Olympics this summer to represent the Netherlands in beach volleyball.

In 2014, the man, Steven van de Velde, now 29, traveled to England, where he raped a 12-year-old girl he had met on Facebook. A British court sentenced him in 2016 to four years in prison. After a year he was transferred to the Netherlands, where his sentence was modified according to Dutch law. In total, Mr van de Velde spent just over a year in prison.

She later received professional psychological help, the volleyball association said.

The Dutch Olympic Committee and the Dutch Volleyball Association are allowing Mr. van de Velde to compete based on the advice of experts who they say deemed the likelihood of a relapse very low, according to the association's website. Mr. van de Velde resumed his beach volleyball career in 2017.

While the international media covered his Olympic participation with a sense of outrage, the story did not gain much traction in the Netherlands. Dutch news outlets have reported extensively on the international media and how they covered the case.

“Especially abroad there was reason to revive the past of the 29-year-old beach volleyball player,” the volleyball association wrote in a note on its website.

Sara Alaoui, founder and director of the Safe Space Club, a nonprofit that works with victims of sexual abuse, said she was surprised by the lack of coverage this story received compared to other, less important sports stories. (For example, Dutch media reported on soccer player Memphis Depay wearing an armband during a recent game.)

Mr van de Velde admitted the crime and told Dutch media that it was the worst mistake of his life.

“It's a huge mistake, no one would deny it. I can't do anything about it anymore,” van de Velde said in a 2018 interview with Dutch broadcaster NOS. “I can't reverse the situation, so I will have to bear the consequences.”

Ms. Alaoui said she was disappointed by what she called a lack of remorse and introspection on Mr. van de Velde’s part. It sends the message that “if you’re a white Adonis, you have less to answer for,” she said.

“If you are truly sorry and this is the biggest mistake of your life, then you need to show why you deserve a second chance,” Ms. Alaoui said. One way would be to work with organizations that fight sexual abuse, she said.

“I don’t understand how we handle this in the Netherlands post-MeToo,” she said. “We’re talking about child abuse.”

Olympic organizers were aware of Mr van de Velde's story and said in their statement that they had spent a lot of time talking to him.

“When van de Velde looks in the mirror now, he sees a mature and happy man, married and the father of a beautiful son,” the Dutch Volleyball Association, called Nevobo in Dutch, wrote on its website.

Michel Everaert, general director of the volleyball association, said in a statement: “He is proving to be an exemplary professional and human being and there has been no reason to doubt him since his return.”

Mr. van de Velde is not the first Olympian to be convicted of a crime. The most famous case is that of Tonya Harding, who qualified for the U.S. figure skating team at the 1994 Winter Olympics and was suspected of involvement in an assault on a rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Ms. Harding was allowed to compete, awkwardly on the same team as Ms. Kerrigan, and finished eighth. She later pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution and was fined and sentenced to probation and community service.

Bruce Kimball was a silver medalist in diving in 1984 and hoped to return to the U.S. Olympic team in 1988. Two weeks before the Olympic trials, he hit a group of teenagers while driving drunk, killing two. Mothers Against Drunk Driving and friends of victims opposed his participation in the trials, but he was allowed to compete. He finished fourth and sixth in his two events, failing to make the team, and ultimately served four years in prison.

Vittorio Mater contributed to the reporting

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