Belgium’s 10 most popular sports
With a national team going for World Cup glory in Brazil this year, there’s no doubt that football is Belgium’s most popular sport. But what other sports are the Belgian people passionate about? The Bulletin has put together a list of Belgium’s top 10 most popular sports.
Be it Belgium’s dazzling national Red Devils football team, or the hundreds of football clubs organised throughout the country’s regions, football is the country’s most popular sport. With football's rapid growth in popularity in the late 19th century, several football clubs came into existence in Belgium. Matches in the Belgian Pro League get up to 25,000 attendees, and the league’s best clubs (among which Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Standard Liege) have won one or more European Cup Final.
For those wanting to play football at just-for-fun level, many amateur leagues exist throughout Belgium, both indoor and outdoor.
Next to soccer, cycling is a very popular sport in Belgium. Not only are the best cyclists revered acrossed the country, but Belgians also go to great lengths to attend Belgium’s many bike racing events (one of the most popular being the Tour of Flanders) and practise the sport themselves (21% of Belgians cycle for sport).
The Belgian obsession with cycling may have begun with Eddy Merckx. Having won the Tour de Fance five times, (only Armstrong “won” more), Merckx was one of the best racers ever seen in Belgium or anywhere else. While he doesn’t cycle anymore, his name lives on with his own bike brand. More recent Belgian cycling stars include Tom Boonen (pictured above), who won the green jersey in the Tour de France in 2007.
It may come as a surprise, but tennis is actually the most watched sport in Belgium. According to a 2010 study, 67% of Belgians watch the sport on television, and half of these watch tennis more than 10 times a year. Football comes in a close second at 51%, however (statistics exclude World Cup viewing).
Played throughout the country, tennis got popular thanks to many famous Belgian tennis players. There are the well known Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, who were both ranked number one in the world at one point. 42% of Belgians also think Clijsters is the best female athelete in Belgium. Former Belgian tennis champions include Filip Dewulf (two ATP titles), Christophe Rochus, Sabine Appelmans (seven) and Dominique Monami (four).
As we see with football, the Belgians love cheering for an underdog team; this may be why atheltics got its original popularity in Belgium. Take the Belgian athletic team at the 2008 Olympic games, where no one expected Tia Hellebaut to win gold at the high-jump, or the 4x100m team (Olivia Borlée, Hanna Mariën, Kim Gevaert and Elodie Ouedraogo) to get silver. Actually, it turns out the whole Borlée family are super-human Belgian runners, with Olivia’s twin brothers Kevin and Jonathan making waves in the 400m.
Olympics aside, Belgians are running fanatics with 23% of the population hitting the track and field. The country has two major marathons: the Antwerp Marathon and the Brussels Marathon. There is also an annual competition called the Nacht van Vlaanderen, a 100km race held annually since 1980. Other nothworthy races include the Warandeloop, Kust Marathon and the 20km of Brussels.
Basketball is another popular Belgian sport although not so frequently watched on the television. The country has a national Belgian Basketball League in which eight teams from across the country participate. Most Belgian cities also organise basketball clubs.
Among the famous basketball players, you have Ann Wouters who plays in the American WNBA with her team the San Antonio Silverstars. Axel Hervelle meanwhile was a second-round NBA draft pick in 2005 for the Denver Nuggets.
6. Field hockey
While less watched than football, field hockey remains a very popular sport both practised and watched by Belgians. Take this video by current Belgian national field hockey coach Marc Lammers; in it you see Belgian field hockey fans are just as passionate for the Red Lions national hockey team as they are for the Red Devils. This is in part thanks the recent success of Belgium’s national field hockey teams (Red Lions and Panthers) in the 2013 Euro Hockey cup.
These last five sports may not be so popular on the television, but are certainly the most practised in Belgium. The 2010 Belgian Sports Survey says swimming is Belgium’s most practised sport, with 26% of the population going for a swim.
With 1,523km of navigable inland waterways that run through its mainland, it’s hard to leave water sports out of the Belgian top eight. The Belgian coast is a popular spot for sailing. Pleasure cruisers and yachts are the most popular types of boating activity, but there are clubs and associations for enthusiasts of other sports including water skiing and rowing.
9. Horse riding
When riding along the countryside you’ll quickly notice that Belgium has many horses. Horses were an important part of Belgian farming throughout history, and a breed of horse even emerged from the country during the Middle Ages: the Belgian Draft. The continued high presence of horses in Belgium today makes them popular for riding and showing in competitions that are held almost every weekend (including in the Royal Riding Club in Uccle).
Golf has been around in Belgium for more than a century, and allows you to see some of the best hidden escapes in Belgium. It has some of the oldest courses in continental Europe, the oldest of which is in Brussels at the Royal Golf Course of Belgium in Tervuren, (founded in 1906 by King Leopold II). Check out the Royal Belgian Golf Federation page for some great course ideas.
Photos courtesy of Flickr/PeterHuys,Idrinktea, bellybouncer, janheuninck