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The six most popular sports in Belgium
If you haven’t been in Belgium long, perhaps you were surprised that the country brought home just one medal from the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang.
But long-time residents know not to expect much out of winter sports. Since the beginning of the Winter Games in 1924, Belgium has brought home a total of ... wait for it ... six medals.
Lacking the mountains of France and the snow of Norway, Belgium is much more invested in fair-weather and stadium sports – both as competitors and as fans. So if you want to know how to join your Belgian brethren in cheering for the home team, bone up on these sports instead.
Be it the dazzling Red Devils national side or the hundreds of professional and amateur clubs, football is arguably Belgium’s most popular sport. Matches in the Belgian Pro League attract up to 25,000 supporters, and the league’s best clubs (among which Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Standard Liège) have won one or more European Cup Final.
The Red Devils are, in fact, credited with being one of the very (very, very) few institutions that brings the three regions of this country together in solidarity. If you didn’t live here during the last World Cup – where Belgium’s epic winning match against the United States was hailed the most exciting at the event – brace yourself for this summer. Offices will empty early, and pubs and squares will overflow with revelling fans. Get your gear here.
The women’s team, meanwhile, is called the Red Flames, and they finally got the attention they deserved from the public when they qualified for the European Championships last year for the very first time.
For those who want to try a little footie themselves, there are many amateur leagues throughout the country for both adults and kids, and most of them happily welcome internationals. Check at your local sport club, or just go straight here.
When it comes to enduring images of Belgian life, tourists might not remember football, but they do remember cycling. The sheer number of locals who cycle to school or work or to the grocery store leaves an impression. Add to that the numbers who take to the country’s scenic cycle paths at weekends, and you’ve got a national obsession.
It’s no different in the professional realm, where cyclists are revered. Belgians go to great lengths to attend the many road races, lining up along the route to pump their fists in the air when their fave cyclist passes by.
The biggest and most popular cycle race is the Tour of Flanders, every first Sunday of April. Hundreds of thousands of people line the route or park themselves in one of the “fan zones”.
The less ambitious can still be found watch the live TV coverage, even if that’s not something they ordinarily do. It’s a true cultural event.
Eddy Merckx did much to seal Belgium’s love affair with cycling. Born in a small town in Flemish Brabant, Merckx won the Tour de France five times, (only Lance Armstrong “won” more) and is still considered one of the greatest cyclists of all time.
Belgium’s current cycling heroes are road racer Philippe Gilbert (“The Boar of the Ardennes”), who won last year’s Tour of Flanders, and Greg Van Avermaet (“The King of Flanders”), who won a gold medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Despite the popularity of the big two above, it’s tennis that is the most-watched sport on TV in Belgium. Perhaps because matches rarely happen here, a full two-thirds of Belgians watch the sport on the telly every year, and half of these 10 or more times.
An interest in tennis spiked dramatically in the 2000s when Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters were at the top of their games, both ranking number one in the world at different points. Clijsters retired in 2007 but made a comeback in 2009 that was so remarkable it made headlines around the world.
Entering the US Open with a wild card, Clijsters won, becoming the first unseeded player in the world to ever win a Grand Slam tournament. She was also the first since 1980 to win a Grand Slam after having given birth.
Current big names in Belgian tennis include David Goffin (ATP 7), Elise Mertens (WTA 22) and Kirsten Flipkens (WTA 67).
When it comes to sprints, the Borlée family own Belgium. Twin brothers Kevin and Jonathan are both 400m champions, with Kevin at one point winning bronze in the World Championships and gold in the European Championships.
Younger brother Dylan also runs the 400m, winning silver at the European level in 2015. All the brothers make up 400m relay teams, which have won multiple medals at both world and European levels.
Eldest sibling Olivia Borlée, meanwhile, runs the 100 and 200m and holds the Belgian record for the 4x100m relay, winning bronze at the World Championships in 2007. She and her three teammates also won silver at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. After the Russians were found to have used performance-enhancing drugs, however, the medal was upgraded to gold.
Every year late in the summer, Brussels hosts the AG Memorial Van Damme, part of the IAAF Diamond League, when the best athletics competitors in the world descend on the capital.
As for the rest of us: The county’s two major running events – the Antwerp 10 Miles & Marathon and the Brussels Marathon & Half Marathon – are extremely popular. Brussels hosts a second one – the 20k of Brussels – a month later.
And then there’s the Dodentoch, or Death March, in which people actually volunteer to run or walk 100km in 24 hours. Not to be outdone by Antwerp province, West Flanders also has a version, only slightly more innocently titled the Nacht van Vlaanderen (Night of Flanders). It also organises shorter walks and runs as part of the event.
5. Field hockey
Belgium’s field hockey teams are consistently at the top of the class at European level. Both the men (Red Lions) and women (Red Panthers) made last year’s EuroHockey finals, and both got knocked out by the Netherlands. Check out this video by former Red Lions coach Marc Lammers, where you’ll see just how rabid hockey supporters in Belgium can be.
A silver medal in the 100m freestyle at the 2016 Summer Olympics was unexpected and finally got Belgians interested in the sport at the professional level. Medallist Pieter Timmers is still the one to beat in Belgium, with a wealth of medals and numerous national records to his name. For the women, watch Fanny Lecluyse, who has won more medals for short course than any other Belgian woman over the last 20 years.
The average Belgian likes to swim, too: According to a 2016 survey, swimming is the third most-practiced exercise in the country after walking and cycling.
Photo 1: Dirk Waem/BELGA / Photo 2: Marcos Brindicci/REUTERS / Photo 3: Former bicycle parking, Gent-Sint-Pieters / Photo 4: Patrick Hamilton/BELGA / Photo 5: From left: Dylan, Olivia, Jonathan and Kevin Borlée