- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2001

All of a sudden, the sports world is bulgin' with Belgians. I refer to Monday's election of Jacques Rogge as president of the International Olympic Committee and to the continuing exploits of those teen-age tennis terrors, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. Henin, who reached the final at Wimbledon, and Clijsters, who reached the final at the French Open (beating Henin in the semis) are now the fifth- and sixth-ranked players in the world.

This is quite a feat for a country that has a population of about four OK, 10.2 million and is only slightly larger than Maryland. Let's face it, when you think of Belgium, you don't exactly think of sports. You think of waffles. You think of canals. You think of that famous statue in Brussels that "urinates" water. If you're as old as I am, you might even think of the Belgian Congo (now Zaire). But athletes and IOC presidents? No way.

And for good reason, too. Over the decades, Belgium has tended to leave the athletic glory to others. Its most famous jock is probably Eddy Merckx, who won the Tour de France a record five times (1969-72, '74). After him, though, there's a pretty big drop-off. Ever hear of Micheline Lannoy and Pierre Baugniet? They won Belgium's only gold medal in the Winter Olympics (in pairs skating at St. Moritz in 1948). How about Emiel Puttemans? He held the 5,000-meter mark in track and field for a while in the '70s.

The Belgians have done a little better in the Summer Games than they have in the Cold Wars. You know which sport they've performed best in in recent years? Judo! Yup, they're a handful in the martial arts. They've taken six medals in judo in the last two Olympics five of them by women and two by Gella Vandecaveye. (Even if Vandecaveye doesn't qualify for the team in 2004, they'll likely find a place for her. There's always room for Gella, right?)

Belgium might have made even more athletic noise if it hadn't gotten a bad break. The name Ivo van Damme may not mean much to most of you, but he was a heck of a middle-distance runner 25 years ago. At the Montreal Games, he finished second in the 800 (behind the unbeatable Alberto Juantorena) and the 1,500 (behind the great John Walker). Alas, five months later, at the tender age of 22, he died in a car accident just as our own Steve Prefontaine had done not long before. Ivo is the Belgian "Pre."

People tend to forget the role the country has played in Olympic history. The Summer Games, I'll have you know, were held in Antwerp in 1920, and it was there the Olympic oath was first uttered and the Olympic flag first unfurled. That was the best Olympics Belgium ever had. Its athletes, spurred on by the home crowds, captured 14 golds. Hubert van Innis, an archer, won four golds and two silvers all by himself.

About that same time, the most famous Belgian in American sports annals was starting up the Green Bay Packers. Curly Lambeau wasn't actually born in Belgium; he was simply of Belgian extraction. But he left an awfully big mark on the National Football League. Six championships (and five more under Vince Lombardi), Don Hutson, the Bears-Packers rivalry where would pro football be without Lambeau?

(Belgium and the United States have quite a bit in common, when you get right down to it. For instance, their politicians get caught up in poultry scandals that topple governments as happened in '99 and ours get in trouble by messing around with young chicks.)

Anyway, with Rogge, Henin and Clijsters, Belgium seems to have entered a Golden Era in sports especially when you throw in Fred deBurghgraeve, who took the gold in the 100-meter breaststroke at the Atlanta Games. What's next for the Belgians, a victory by Axel Merckx (currently running 17th) or Kurt Van de Wouwer (28th) in the Tour de France? A British Open title for Nicolas Vanhootegem (who shot a 64 to share medalist honors in one of the qualifiers)? A U.S. Open crown for Justine or Kim?

Hey, don't laugh. Belgians have rarely been more prominent in sports than they are right now. This is one happenin' country; it's en fuego (to borrow Dan Patrick's term). Today the IOC, tomorrow the world.

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