February 12, 2014

Why is Belgium so bad at the Olympics?

One of the oddities of Olympic history is how little Belgium cares. Not having ski mountains, it's not too surprising that they don't do well at the Winter Olympics. But, fellow lowcountry neighbor Netherlands (which as about 50% more people) is quite good, especially at the Hans Brinker sports:

Belgium: Winter Olympics: 5 medals
Netherlands: Winter Olympics: 96 medals

The Summer Games medal totals aren't all that different:

Belgium: Summer Olympics: 142 medals
Netherlands: Summer Olympics: 266 medals

But the Belgians won 36 of those medals at the 1920 Antwerp Summer Olympics. 

From 2000 onward, Netherlands has completely outdone them:

Belgium: 21st Century Winter Olympics: 0 medals *
Netherlands: 21st Century Winter Olympics: 35 medals

Belgium: 21st Century Summer Olympics: 7 medals
Netherlands: 21st Century Winter Olympics: 83 medals

* This may or may not include medals Belgium has won at the current Winter Olympics (if any): nobody seems to have updated Belgium's Olympic medals Wikipedia page. But that's sort of my point.

There are no doubt a lot of reasons for this, but I suspect (off the top of my head) that a big one is that Belgium isn't a nation. It emerged as a Catholic agglomeration and was formalized in 1839 by the Great Powers to be an intentionally weak neutral country on the boundary between Romance-speaking and Germanic-speaking Europe.

Many of Britain's most famous battles in history (e.g., Waterloo) have been fought in Belgium or very nearby (Agincourt, the Somme).

That's why pan-European institutions like the E.U are so often headquartered in Brussels. 

It's been a rich place for a thousand years -- the rivers of northwestern Europe provide excellent soil and transport. But the Flemish-speakers and the French-speakers don't get all that excited by the nationalism of the Olympics. With the decline in religious identity, there's not much to hold Belgium together except that foreign elites want it to exist.


eah said...

If you look at eg this table, the Dutch are significantly taller, both men and women. Having visited both countries, it was certainly my impression that the Dutch are a bigger, stronger, more athletic-looking people. I think they are also more serious about sports than the Belgians.

stari_momak said...

They’re still living off the memory of <a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e8/Eddy_Merckx_Molteni_1973.jpg”>Eddy Merckx.</a>

Anonymous said...

Why not just split the country in two?

Anonymous said...

A divided nation means they cannot get consensus on taxing people to pay for training athletes. So maybe limited government cannot be obtained by a mono cultural society. Switzerland is also a multilingual and multicultural country.

Art Deco said...

It was invented in 1839 by the Great Powers to be an intentionally weak neutral country on the boundary between Romance-speaking and Germanic-speaking Europe.

No. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 conjoined the former United Netherlands to the former Hapsburg Netherlands and the former Prince-Bishopric of Liege in a revived Dutch Kingdom. The latter territories (which were linguistically bifurcated but predominantly Catholic) seceded in a revolt in 1830/31, separating themselves from the old United Netherlands (which were lingustically uniform - more or less - religiously bifurcated, but possessed of a Calvinist majority).

Anonymous said...

One word: JCVD. He's worth more than all those Dutch medals.

Anonymous said...

"""...an intentionally weak neutral country on the boundary between Romance-speaking and Germanic-speaking Europe.""""

Thought the two sides already had that, it's called Switzerland.

Bada Bing.

Except of course that Switzerland have way tons more money. Aside from that, isn't it kind of the same thing?

2Degrees said...

Just lately you have been commenting on subjects I know something about like the Caucasus and Belgium. So I'll do a little more writing and a little less reading. Please write about NZ some time!

The vagaries of European dynastic politics meant that, in the sixteenth century, Charles V of Spain also ended up as ruler of a disparate group of semi-independent fiefdoms in the Low Countries. His empire also included Southern Italy, Franche Compte, Austria and bits of Hungary and, of course, the newly discovered lands in the Americas. His reign also coincided with the European Reformation which spread rapidly through what is now Belgium. He was able to crush the movement in the South, but the protestants fled north and the military technology of the time made it very difficult to reduce the Dutch fortresses and river fortifications. The Habsburgs also had to cope with fighting against the Ottomans and France and were never able to concentrate their power to finish off the Dutch. The United Provinces, of which Holland/Amsterdam were by far and away the most important, helped themselves to much Portugal's eastern empire when Philip II annexed the kingdom in 1580. This gifted them the spice trade, but their attempt to annex Brazil (and Macau) ended in Portuguese victory. The Protestants also seized the Scheldt estuary thus ruining Antwerp as a centre of European commerce. The Dutch then became fantastically wealthy and the centre of culture and commerce in Europe. Peter the Great was so impressed he based the Russian flag on the Dutch one. He just swapped over the colours. Thus, the Dutch acquired a pride and purpose they have never completely lost.

Belgium became a backwater in the Spanish Empire before being handed over to the Austrians and then to the Dutch after the Napoleonic Wars. The British liked having that part of the continent politically divided for security reasons and so midwifed Belgian independence when Catholic riots broke out against rule by the Protestant House of Orange. The Belgians were never masters of their own fate and so settled into a kind of provincial lethargy. This diffidence has never quite left them and explains why Belgians may be individually prosperous, but their country has achieved little.

Nonetheless, across Belgium, all sections of society supported independence, mainly for religious reasons, and they were given a foreign king to rule over them. The upper crust spoke French everywhere while the peasantry communicated in forms of either Dutch or French that were incomprehensible to persons outside their own provinces.

Trouble came with the spread of education as local dialects were replaced by either standard French or standard Dutch and the upper crust started to speak the same languages as those below them on the social ladder. The only thing that now holds Belgium together is the fact that Brussels is the capital of Flanders, but speaks French and independence would mean creating a francophone enclave within Dutch-speaking territory.

Though Holland suffers from a particularly sick form of PC, they have a sense of purpose that the Belgians simply lack. The Dutch colonial empire could be cruel. The less said about the history of Surinam the better. However, no colonial regime was as gratuitously vicious as Belgian rule in the Congo. The Belgians have little to take pride in.

This shows how dangerous it is that the PC have control of our history. If they teach our kids that they are nothing, nothing they will be.

Five Daarstens said...

Off/On Topic:

In Leuven, Belgium, they have a very impressive Science Park/University Center. It might rival anything in the USA. There are plenty of high tech businesses around the area.

Anonymous said...

Belgium are 5th choice for the World Cup.

Anonymous said...

Belgian sports federations (such as the tennis and cycling governing bodies) are split into Dutch- and French-speaking groups.

Reg Cæsar said...

Many of Britain's most famous battles in history…

As opposed to what? Battles in fantasy? Battles in future? Battles in name only?

(Battles in opera, like we have?

Luke Lea said...

The Belgians don't do soccer like the Netherlands either. Maybe they are just not into sports?

Reg Cæsar said...

Thought the two sides already had that, it's called Switzerland… isn't it kind of the same thing?

Not really Switzerland was created from within, Belgium from without.

Anonymous said...

In the bad old days high handed aristocratic elitists seemed happy to redraw borders and ignore the realities of religion, ethnicity, language and culture on the ground.

Principality A needs to be a bit bigger? Simple, we'll just carve out a dozen villages from Principality B next door. After all we need A to be a bigger and stronger buffer zone, because of Kingdom C on its other border. Sure the new citizens of A dont speak the same language, were at war with A only a few years ago but so what? Its not like their opinion matters.

Thus the logic of Belgium, Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia.

These days we have the same problem but wrapped up in the language of multiculturalism and diversity.

There is a small bit of Belgium - bordering Germany - which is German speaking. Because Germany must be punished for WW1 & WW2 these small areas must remain as part of Belgium. It seems ludicrous. They are too small to affect the supposed strategic importance of Belgium.

One would think that after 1918 and/or 1945 they could have been quietly left to remain as part of Germany. But no.

Anonymous said...

I do wonder if Belgium might break up at some point, becoming part of France and the Netherlands (and a bit to Germany).

Anonymous said...

The Flemish want to separate but the EU outlaw their political parties.

Anonymous said...

Eddy Merckx

His background was ambiguous enough for him to be claimed by both the Flemish and Walloon groups.

Laguna Beach Fogey said...

I suspect Belgians have other things on their mind than silly sporting events.

Plus, the biggest, tallest, hardiest part of their population immigrated to South Africa.

Albert said...

On the subject of Belgian sport, they're preparing to send their "Golden Generation" of soccer players to the World Cup this summer having qualified for the first time since 2002.

They legitimately have the talent to compete with the best nations in the world at every position except for fullback, which is rather impressive given their population of 11 million.

Since their team contains a mix of players of European and African descent, it probably explains why they can compete in the most popular sport on the planet, but their national athletic prowess doesn't show up in the Winter Olympics.

Some of their best players are European, like their two excellent keepers Simon Mignolet and Thibaut Curtois (Europeans dominate the position like no other), as well as defenders Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaleen, and midfielders Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Kevin Mirallas.

Centerback Vincent Kompany is half-Congolese and captains both Belgium and oil rich Manchester City. Towering center midfielder Marouane Fellaini (who plays his club soccer for City's rival Manchester United) has Moroccan parents, as does winger Nacer Chadli. Fellaini's center midfield partner Mousa Dembele is half-Malian.

Belgium also feature two excellent, big, physical center forwards. Christian Benteke was born in Zaire and wound up in Belgium when his family fled during Mobutu's reign, and Romelu Lukaku was born in Belgium to parents who had also emigrated from Zaire (Lukaku's father was a professional who played in Europe).

Anonymous said...

It's very mysteriouckx indeed.

Anonymous said...

Re: Luke Lee

"The Belgians don't do soccer like the Netherlands either. Maybe they are just not into sports?"

Belgium won 4-2 the last time they played.

roundeye said...

Stupid Flanders.

Art Deco said...

Not really Switzerland was created from within, Belgium from without.

Again, no. The diplomatic solution in 1815 conjoined all components of the Netherlands. The quondam Hapsburg/ecclesiastical portion seceded in a revolt in 1830/31. It was not an artifact of the European powers. Their was a effort for some time to promote bilingualism after which federalism was the order of the day which has now gotten quite cumbersome. The components really should separate at this point.

Anonymous said...

I always like the say, it's not that the Netherlands is a small country.

You just don't need that many Dutch to be succesful.


BurplesonAFB said...

"Nowhere in Africa is the Bantu so well fed and housed, so productive and so content as he is in the Belgian Congo.” 1955, TIME

So at least the violence was being applied towards a brighter future.

Anonymous said...

Belgians and Finnish are two nationalities that stand out in Western Europe for their lack of achievement.

Whatever the category Nobel winning scientists, business tycoons, famous people, they are bad at it.

Anonymous said...

"I suspect Belgians have other things on their mind than silly sporting events."

Frankly that's an excuse used by losers.

Dutch Boy said...

Lots of watercourses in The Netherlands (that freeze in the winter for the enjoyment of the Hans Brinkers). Not so many in Belgium.

Art Deco said...

Belgians and Finnish are two nationalities that stand out in Western Europe for their lack of achievement.

Achievement at what? They both established their independence by force of arms and constructed fairly prosperous societies under constitutional administrations. Belgium was just behind Britain in (and ahead of the rest of the occidental world) in constructing an industrial infrastructure during the early 19th century.

Steve Sailer said...

There are plenty of high achieving Belgians -- e.g., Jan van Eyck of Bruges, who around 1430 was the first painter of the Renaissance to achieve what we would think of as photorealism by combining perspective and oil paint -- but they weren't called Belgians yet.

Henry Canaday said...

You must also recognize the Belgian railroad-station effect.

In the small towns of the agricultural, Walloon section of Belgium, there are lovely small train stations. These are built of reddish and yellowish brick arranged in pleasing geometrical patterns. The interior of the rural Belgian train station is divided in half. One half is a waiting room and ticketing area. The other half is a bar.

In the bar half of the station, Belgian farmers sit, drink, eat, smoke, play cards and complain about politicians from morning until evening. There is no TV station to distract them, as in U.S. bars or now British pubs, with irrelevancies such as soccer or any other form of vigorous exercise. These tough Walloon farmers know quite enough about vigorous physical exercise. That is why they are in the station bar, to avoid it.

They weigh about 250 pounds each and are the most enjoyable people in the world to spend with.

Anonymous said...

Yea it's really surprising that two tiny countries one divided by language the other with a highly strange and unique language haven't won a ton of Nobel Prizes. I'd put Belgian achievements above anything China has given the world.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised the obvious answer hasn't been mentioned yet. When your claim to fame is being the tiny neutral country where the EU puts all it's buildings too your counties get economic benefit maybe you don't want to stand out all that much and risk that. Funny how Sailer the undisputed champ of cyncial motive attribution didn't throw that one out there.

Anonymous said...

i think Belgium isn't getting it;'s fair shake here. It is a small place (made doubly small by your absolutely correct notion that there are two, often confrontational) nations in the country. You need a certain population base before you can start branching out of core-skill-set activities.
The Belgians have seemed, either organically or by official direction, to have put all their eggs into the sport of cycling's basket. BEL has produced some *exceptional* talent and to this day is one of the better generators of cyclists.

Anonymous said...

also, the Dutch medal count is somewhat artificially bolstered. The Dutch *love* speed skating. There are races which have been held annually since the 1600s. But w/in skating, there is the 500m, 1000m, 5000m, pairs etc.
Canada loves hockey.
If your country loves skating, you can end up with oodles of medals whereas if your country loves hockey, you end up with one. This isn't to say Canadians are less athletic or less good at wintersports, it's just a weird statistical artifact.
*nb- i know canada wins tons of medals, i was using hockey to make a point

Steve Sailer said...

Because Belgium is south of the Netherlands, I guess there's more chance of falling through the ice. Also, fewer canals. But it's still quite flat, so, bicycling (which is most pleasant on flat terrain) is appealing.

Volksverhetzer said...

The Dutch are virtually the same as the Danes and Norwegians on Haplogroup maps, and are together with the Scandinavians, the closest cousins to the sport crazy English culture.

I don't know, but are Belgians even the same ethnicity as the Dutch? Perhaps they are remains of the original population, that lived there before the Franks/Frisians?

Steve Sailer said...

I spent a few days in Belgium in 1994 and distinctly recall how superb their road surfaces were compared to Chicago's. You could drive 95 mph in a tinny rented Fiat subcompact without feeling like your car was going to shake apart. Whether excellent road construction is a cause or effect of Belgium's love of cycling is a question for somebody else to answer.

Douglas Knight said...

Wikipedia for Nobel prizes. Belgium matches France, doubles Italy and Spain, but is doubled by America and Germany, and is tripled by Britain. Finland is between Belgium and Italy. For Fields medals, Belgium and France have about double the rate of any country with more than 1. (Though Belgium has 2, so it's not statistically significant.)

Anonymous said...

Belgium excels in food/beers/delicatessen, restaurants (Michelin stars), fashion designers. It's a very nice place to be -- for a few days.

Their current world cup squad is indeed stellar. Only Spain and Germany are better, they're equal to Brazil, but above UK, France, Netherlands, etc. If they get their act together a semifinal is a possibility.

Flemmish nationalists probably don't see what you're talking about Steve, they see themselves as part of the Netherlands -- just divided by border. They see Dutch success as their success.

jody said...

i'm definitely no expert on belgium, but the trend seems to be that people who speak french are less interested in sports. not that there are no athletes who speak french, but much less person for person, than you would expect. they are usually interested in other things and would rather spend their time on them. please, don't start listing french athletes. i'm aware of them. and also aware that there are less of them than you would predict from the size of the francosphere.

whether they would be about as good on average at several different sports as their neighbors are, remains an open question. i think, possibly. but we'll probably never know. it's certainly ok to have less interest in sports than other people.

Anonymous said...

Vlaanderens mooiste
Ronde van Vlaanderen
Tour of Flanders


Steve Sailer said...

The French were traditionally not very interested in sports, except for Anglophiles like Baron de Coubertin. In contrast to the successful 1896 inaugural Olympics in poor, remote Athens, the 1900 Olympics in Paris were a flop -- the French barely noticed the events going on -- and almost did in the Baron's Olympic movement. The French saw exercise as potential interfering with digestion, which was a cultural priority.

The French got much more interested in sports during the Nazi occupation. They noticed that their conquerors were more athletic and outdoors-oriented, and, they reasoned, maybe that had something to do with who won in 1940.

Anonymous said...

the sport crazy English culture.

The English seem into sports, but not too serious or hardcore about it. I mean even their favorite sports are kind of silly and frivolous. They don't seem as into the more "pure" sports.

Truth said...

The Dutch don't have a Jean-Claude Van Varenberg either.

Anonymous said...

I've know a number of first-class Belgian scientists, thinking about it, probably a surprising number for such a small country. None worked or lived in Belgium. Belgium seems to be a nice place to leave before it gets run over in another war.

And the two groups really do seem to despise each other. Get them to tell you some jokes about the other group...

R J said...

Nobody has mentioned two other great Belgians: César Franck (born eight years, admittedly, before the founding of the Belgian nation) and Georges "Inspector Maigret" Simenon (a native of Liège, and one who never gave up his Belgian citizenship, apparently, despite leaving the country in his 19th year).

Hunsdon said...

48 comments and no one has mentioned Fabrique Nationale?

Julian O'Dea said...

Not sure if already said, but aren't the Walloons Protestant?

Anonymous said...

"Not sure if already said, but aren't the Walloons Protestant?"

Where did you get that idea? They're Catholic. Belgium is the Catholic half of the Low Countries.