Sport in Belgium
- A Great Ludodiversity of Folk Games
- Struggle Between German and Swedish Gymnastics
- Infiltration from Albion: Modern Sports
- Two International Olympic Committee Presidents
Belgium, with a population of about 10 million, is situated at the cultural crossroads of Europe. The frontier between Germanic and Latin languages divides the country into Flanders, the Flemish-speaking North (58 percent of the population), and Wallonia, the French-speaking South. There is also a small Germanspeaking enclave. At the core lies Brussels, the bilingual capital, which is also the seat of the European Community and NATO headquarters. Having served both as buffer state and battlefield between France and Germany, Belgium also borders the Netherlands to the north and Luxembourg to the south. Moreover, Great Britain is only fifty sea-miles away from its northern shore.
Under the reign of the Spanish Habsburgs, the Low Countries (the region now comprised of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) had already split up in 1585 into the southern Catholic part of the Low Countries (later to become Belgium) and the northern Protestant part (later to become the Netherlands). Belgium broke away as an independent state in 1830.The Low Countries had thus been reunited again only shortly from 1815 to 1830, after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo (located south of Brussels).
A Great Ludodiversity of Folk Games
Belgium’s sports history reflects the nation’s social and cultural development.The country has a long tradition and a rich variety of folk games (the term ludodiversity is often used in connection with the preservation of these folk games). The Saint Georges crossbow guilds, the Saint Sebastian archery guilds, the Saint Barbara arquebuse guilds, and the Saint Michael swordsmen guilds were products of medieval civic pride especially in Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Leuven (Louvain) and Brussels. Many of these guilds still exist and thus belong to the oldest sporting relics in Europe. The crossbowmen and archers whose guilds date back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries still have their popinjay shooting contests.This type of archery where one shoots at “jays” fixed on top of a tall pole,was for the last time practiced as an Olympic sport at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. The fencers of the Saint Michael guild of Ghent still practice in the same premises, where their guild was founded in 1613. Kaatsen (in Flemish) or Balle Pelote (in French) is a five-a-side handball game also with medieval roots. The same holds true for bowling games such as closh (province of Limburg), curl bowls (provinces of East and West Flanders), nine pins (Brabant, Antwerp, Limburg, and in the Germanophone East Canton). Cock fighting, though illegal in Belgium, is still practiced near the French border (where it is still legal) and in a few pockets in Brabant, Limburg, and Liège. Throwing games come in many variants: throwing small discs to a target (a line, a hole in a table as in “toad in a hole” etc.), throwing darts or javelots at a board, throwing clubs at a tripod etc. Traditionally women have played only a minor role in these games, which were linked with the local pubs, typical male preserves. In 1973 the Flemish Folk Games File research project was launched at the Catholic University of Leuven. In order to preserve the rich but endangered ludodiversity of Flanders, the Flemish Folk Games Central was founded in 1980 and the Traditional Sports Federation (VLAS) in 1988. A recent survey comparing the situation of traditional games in Flanders over the 1982–2002 period has shown that during these twenty years the mean age of the practitioners has continued to increase, their already low social status has dropped even further and their location was now more rural than before. The only good news was that the participation of women in traditional games had slightly increased (from 11 percent to 22 percent).
Struggle Between German and Swedish Gymnastics
Gymnastics was first promoted in the new Kingdom of Belgium (1830) by the French “gymnasiarch” Hippolyte Triat in his private gymnasium in Brussels, and by Joseph Isenbaert in Antwerp and August De Krijger in Ghent. Isenbaert founded the first gymnastics society in 1839 in Antwerp. German Turnen (gymnastics) was introduced in 1857 when Johann Jacob Happel was imported from Germany to teach in Antwerp. Another German teacher, Carl Euler, did the same in Brussels from 1870 onwards. Although the Belgian Turner Federation (based on the German system) was founded in 1865, the country would eventually become a stronghold of the Swedish gymnastics system of Per Henrik Ling. The strong political polarization of the country lies at the origin of the creation of a separate Catholic Turner Federation in 1865 and a Socialist Turner Federation in 1904. Colonel Charles Lefébure first officially introduced Swedish gymnastics at the Military Normal School for Fencing and Gymnastics in Brussels in 1904. He also managed (with the help of Cyrille Van Overbergh) to create the very first university Higher Institute of Physical Education in Europe—and in the world—at the State University of Ghent in 1908. The Institute was linked to the Faculty of Medicine and fully based on the Swedish method. It offered candidate, licentiate and doctoral degrees. Female participation in gymnastics was hampered during the Belle Epoque period by bourgeois conservatism on the one hand and Catholic prudery on the other. The State University of Ghent appointed IrèneVan der Bracht as the first female university professor in Belgium’s history in 1925. The rationale was that female physical education students should be taught by a female instructor. Female gymnastics was organized in similar fashion to the Girl Guides, operating in parallel with but independently from the Boy Scouts.This gender “apartheid” was taken very seriously. In 1932, for instance, the Flemish nationalist Turner leader Maurits Verdonck (1879–1968) was banned from the Catholic Gymnastics Federation, because he trained and coached both male and female members in his Ganda Turnverein in Ghent. This “heresy” led to the creation of a separate Catholic Ladies Gymnastics Federation. German Turnen flourished in the many turnverein both in Flanders and Wallonia. Swedish gymnastics, on the contrary,would invade and monopolize physical education in Belgian schools until 1968. From then onwards the Swedish pedagogical spell was broken and replaced by a pluralist physical education concept of sports, games and other physical activities. Belgium was, however, not the very last country in Europe to give up Swedish gymnastics for its school physical education. That record went to Portugal (in 1973), which had been lured into Swedish gymnastics via Leal d’Olivera, a Portuguese army officer who had obtained his PhD in physical education in Ghent in 1929.
Infiltration from Albion: Modern Sports
Thoroughbred horse racing and rowing are generally considered as the precursors of the sports “anglomania,” which affected Belgium as one of the first countries on the European continent. The very first thoroughbred horse races on the continent were held in the thermal city of Spa in the Belgian Ardennes in 1773.They took place before the eyes of the aristocratic fine fleur, who had gathered there for their yearly thermal cure and other more amorous liaisons dangereuses. The Society for Fostering the Amelioration of Horse Races and the Development of Horse Races in Belgium was founded in 1833, three years after the creation of an independent Belgium. It is important not to confuse horse races with horse racing in the title of this very exquisite association. The second wave of English sports import consisted of the creation of Nautic Clubs both in Ostend and Ghent in 1946.Antwerp followed with the Société des Régates De Schelde in 1851, founded by Englishman Georges Collins.The very few, but wealthy aficionados of rowing and sailing had their first moment de gloire when amateur oarsmen from Ghent won the famous Henley Regatta in 1906. What the local organizers probably did not know was that the Ghent crew was composed of oarsman from two rival clubs: Royal Club Nautique de Gand on the one “oar” and Royal Sport Nautique de Gand on the other. Maybe the fact that they were both Royal and both from Ghent fooled the English organizers. This “mixed” crew repeated its rowing exploit in 1907 and 1909.
Cycling has always fascinated the Belgians. In the year 1869 cycling races were organized for the first time in Brussels, Charleroi, Ghent, and the Veurne- Adinkerke race was won by Justin Vander Meeren. The very first velodrome was opened in 1886 in Antwerp and many others would follow.The great breakthrough of Belgian road cycling came with the victory of Cyrille Van Hauwaert in Bordeaux–Paris in 1907 and Odiel Defraeye’s victory in the Tour de France in 1912.
It is generally accepted that football took off in Belgium in 1863 when an Irish pupil from Killarney first kicked his ball on the playground of the Catholic boarding school of Melle near Ghent. “The great old” Antwerp Football club was founded in 1880 by British residents in the harbour city. Originally they played cricket and rugby football.The second club, Football Club Liégeois, made its appearance only twelve years later in 1892. In 1895 the Belgian Union of Societies of Athletic Sports (UBSSA) was created, which reunited sportsmen of diverging disciplines.This temporary “Union” would split in 1912 into separate football and track and field associations.
The Belgian Olympic Committee was only founded in 1906. Belgian athletes had, however, already participated in the 1900 Paris Games where Léon de Lunden had for instance won the gold medal in live pigeon shooting, the famous archer Hubert van Innis won two gold and one silver medal, and the four oarsmen of Royal Club Nautique de Gand (Ghent) also won their race on the Seine river. The fact that the VII Olympic Games were given to the city of Antwerp in 1920 can be seen as a recognition of and recompensation for “Brave little Belgium,” which had withstood the German invasion of 1914–1918 with great magnanimity. The Antwerp Olympics were certainly not the best organized nor most spectacular Games, but they symbolized the revival of the Olympic Movement and they put the Games back on track.The Olympic flag with five rings was for the first time shown at Olympic Games and Olympic water polo player and fencer Victor Boin took the Olympic oath for the first time. He would later become president of the Belgian Olympic Committee from 1955 to 1965.
One of the first important victories of the Flemish movement after the Great War was the flemishization of the State University of Ghent.This led to the creation of a Francophone Higher Institute of Physical Education at the State University of Liège in 1931. The Catholic University of Leuven, founded in 1425, opened its own Physical Education Institute in 1942 with separate Flemish and Francophone sections.The Free University of Brussels followed this example in 1946.
Pierre de Coubertin’s successor as IOC President, the Belgian count Henri de Baillet-Latour died in 1942 during the German occupation of the country. The German occupants together with their collaborators decided to create a General Commissariat for Physical Education and Sports, which would take over control of sport and physical education from the existing National Committee of Physical Education and Belgian Olympic Committee. This new General Commissariat established separate sport structures for Flanders and Wallonia, but this bifurcation of Belgian sport was strongly contested by the unitary sport federations and culminated in a protest letter published in the weekly magazine of the Royal Belgian Football Association. The German military command was afraid of such rebellious acts that might disturb their imposed “pax Germanica” and worked out a modus vivendi between the collaborating General Commissariat on the one hand and the independent National Committee. The end of the war instigated a patriotic and unitarist revival in Belgium, which also led to a reinforcement of the unitary sport structures and an abdication of the regionalist tendencies.
The incipient democratization of sport that had slowly started in the interwar period continued and resulted in higher sport participation among the population. Cycling, especially road races, and football which had not been stopped during the war, drew large crowds of enthusiasts who wanted to support their local heroes.Very popular were the track cyclist Jef “Poeske” Scherens and the road cyclists Rik Van Steenbergen and Rik Van Looy. And then came Eddy Merckx, who dominated international cycling in the 1960s and 1970s and became Belgium’s best-known sportsman worldwide. The country also produced a lineage of medalwinning track athletes in the Olympic Games during the decades after World War II: Gaston Reiff (gold; 5000m, 1948), Roger Moens (silver, 800m, 1960), Gaston Roelants (gold, 3000m steeple 1964), Emiel Puttemans (silver, 10,000m, 1972), Karel Lismont (silver, marathon, 1972), and Ivo Van Damme (silver, 800m and 1500m, 1976).
The unitary organization of Belgian sport split in 1969 as a logical consequence of the introduction of the cultural autonomy of the Flemish and the Francophone communities in Belgium. Two separate sport administrations were created, the Francophone sport department (ADEPS) and the Flemish (BLOSO). Now “sport for all” became a priority and, especially in Flanders under the dynamic leadership of Armand Lams, all kind of initiatives were taken to lower the threshold for sport participation. This has since then resulted in a continuously increasing degree of sport participation and, synchronically, the construction of a new sport infrastructure. Physical education programmes also radically changed in 1968–1969 when the monopoly of the Swedish gymnastics system was finally replaced by the introduction of sports and games. This new approach aims to initiate and socialize pupils in sport participation, which they would hopefully continue after leaving school. Some critics claim though that this sportization of physical education has gone too far and that more emphasis should be laid again on general physical fitness and motor skills.
Two sports in which Belgians have dominated the world and European championships have a lot to do with mud: motor cross and cycling cross. The motor crosser René Baeten excelled in the 1950s, Joël Robert and Roger De Coster in the 1960s,Harry Everts, André Malherbe and Gaston Rahier in the 1970s, Eric Geboers in the 1980s, and Stefan Everts (Harry Everts’ son) and Joël Smets in the 1990s. Eric De Vlaeminck won seven world championships in cycling cross between 1966 and 1973, Roland Liboton won four in the 1980s and from the 1990s onwards the international success was divided among Danny De Bie, Bart Wellens and Sven Nijs. Belgian judo has gained world-class status through Olympic medallists such as Robert Van de Walle and Harry Vanbarneveld and their female colleagues Ingrid Berghmans, Ulla Werbrouck, Gella Vandecaveye, Heidi Rakels, Marie-Isabelle Lomba and Ilse Heylen.
In 2005 female sprinter Kim Gevaert excelled in the 60m, 100m and 200m at the European indoor athletic championships in Madrid, but probably the most astonishing international sport breakthrough was realized by two female tennis players: the Walloon Justine Henin (who won gold at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games) and the Flemish Kim Clijsters, who succeeded each other as No. 1 in the World Tennis Association ranking in 2003.
The highlights of Belgian football have been the 1920 Olympic gold, reaching the World Cup semifinals in Mexico 1986, and, on the club level, Sporting Club Anderlecht having won the European Cup in 1976 and 1978 and the UEFA Cup in 1883.
Two International Olympic Committee Presidents
After Count Henri de Baillet-Latour had been IOC president from 1925 to 1942, another Belgian was elected in this office in 2001: the Flemish orthopedic surgeon Jacques Rogge.This alumnus of the University of Ghent competed in the yachting competitions at the Games of Mexico 1968, Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976. He was president of the Belgian Olympic and Interfederal Committee from 1989 to 1992 and became IOC member in 1991. The profile and career of these two men can be seen as a “pocket” history of Belgium. The first was a diplomat and member of the Francophone aristocracy of Brussels; his father had been governor of the province of Antwerp. Baillet-Latour was a keen horseman (polo, hunting and steeple chasing) and President of the Jockey Club of Belgium.The second is a polyglot medical doctor from the province of East Flanders, who sailed and played rugby and still practiced surgery until the day he was elected IOC President.Trained to make vital decisions about the quality and quantity of the life of his patients, he now faces the political, economic, and medical problems of the world’s top sport trust. Let us hope that he can also cure them.