Chapter 22 - Sports, Old and New

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THE Netherlands have always been the home of sport. Their nobles were great huntsmen, and the forest of the Ardennes abounded in wild animals, including the wolf, until the close of the eighteenth century. Mary of Burgundy died from a fall from her horse out hawking, and the legends of the Ardennes revolve round the chase of the wild boar. The earliest popular sport was probably shooting at a mark with a crossbow, for the crossbowmen of Flanders were as famous as the archers of England. William Clito and Richard Cceur de Lion were both victims of the prowess of a crossbowman (arbaletrier) of Flanders. It is a remarkable proof of how old customs that have lost all utility survive to find a guild of crossbowmen still at Bruges; there used to be a guild of St. George, of which our Charles II was a member, flourishing in Hainaut. The first act demanded of a ruler after making his "joyous entry" was to shoot at the popinjay, and favorable auguries were drawn from his hitting the mark. Great was the joy, for instance, when the Infanta Isabella scored at the first trial on her arrival to establish what was expected to prove a national dynasty.

Archery was very much practiced in Hainaut in the Middle Ages, but whether the long bow was introduced into England from Hainaut, or whether the Hainauters borrowed it from their English comrades on many a stricken field may be left for the investigation of those who have leisure to make the necessary research. We have only to note that "confreries" of archers still exist at Mons, Qiuesnoy, and other towns of Haniaut, and that it is no unusual sight to see on Sundays and fete days members of these societies attired in a jerkin and buskin with the plumed hat associated here with Robin Hood and carrying the old six-foot longbow. Curiously enough, archery as a pastime does not seem to exist in Belgium. Modern Belgium, among the numerous games and sports it has borrowed from England, has not taken up this particular and picturesque game of skill.

Perhaps among the people the jeu de bal is as old as any game in Europe. It is played all over Belgium in the public squares, and even in the open streets of provincial towns. It is nothing more than hitting a small ball backwards and forwards between two players. The feature of the game is that each player holds a wooden bat or glove into which his hand is inserted. The weapon is called a glove (gant). As the material for this game is practically nothing at all it is not surprising to find it in general use. On fete days or at the different kermesses there are competitions for experts at the jeu de bal to which the commune and even the State give money prizes.

Another very old sport, still in general indulgence throughout Belgium, is pigeon-flying. Indeed, there is no sport more generally followed or more attractive to the masses. In some parts of the country it is said the Belgian working man divides his wages into three parts, one for the family, one for himself, and the third for his carrier pigeons. The extent to which the practice is indulged may be gathered from the fact that the railways receive $600,000 a year for the carriage of the panniers (baskets) conveying pigeons to and from the places of meeting. Large prizes are offered by the different societies, and during the year considerable sums of money are won and lost in bets. The freeing of the birds at an important competition is a remarkable sight. At one held during the late Brussels Exposition it was declared that as many as 100,000 birds were let loose at the same moment from the baskets of their owners.

In old days contests between rival parties mounted on stilts were a feature of life at Namur. The use of stilts there seems to have arisen from the prevalence of floods, and from the fact that by their means it was possible to cross the river Sambre when the stream was low. The old town of Namur was situated in the fork of the two rivers, and the new town was that which sprang up on the left bank of the Sambre. There was a keen rivalry between the two, and the opponents were called cchasseurs because their battles were fought on stilts (echasses). To put a curb on the practice of constant irregular fighting, it was arranged by the town authorities to hold a joust once a year on the Place St. Remy (now the Place d'Armes) facing the Town Hall. The two factions, called the Melans for the old town and Avresses for the new, sent their chosen champions to the fray wearing distinctive costumes and colors, yellow and black for the Melans, and red and white for the Avresses. As a rule, the contestants were so skilful in either upsetting their opponents or falling themselves that they escaped any serious injury, but when the French revolutionists overran the country, these jousts were abolished as a survival of feudalism and as not comporting with the gravity of the times.

We come now to the introduction of what were essentially English sports into Belgium. About thirty years ago young Belgium in the great cities, such as Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges, took up football, hockey, and amateur competitions on the running-ground. It was done in a modest and diffident sort of way at first, and some supercilious English critics said of the early football teams that they were not sure what the game was. But that initial stage has passed away, and whatever his skill or success there is one characteristic common to all Belgian athletes. He is in real earnest. No hour is too early for him to get up and begin training; he is ever ready to join in a game or a trial. In fact, he displays the old sporting spirit and go which were the monopoly of Englishmen. The contrast is furnished in Brussels by the young Englishmen who happen to reside in Brusesls. They pass most of their time at the cafes and smoking cigarettes. It would be impossible today to get together in Brussels or the whole of Belgium an English side that could hold its own at either football or hockey with any of the leading Belgian college or club teams. This was not the case even fifteen years ago. Owing to the absence of suitable playing fields cricket has not yet caught on in Belgium, but at the new club grounds in the Avenue Longchamp several first-rate pitches have been laid down and the game finds a few enthusiastic followers. But cricket is never likely to become as general in Belgium as football or hockey.

It is in boating, however, that young Belgium has made the most sensational progress, but in this particular matter Ghent must be regarded as standing for Belgium. Two boating clubs, the Cercle Nautique de Gand and the Royal Club of Ghent, were founded in the Flemish capital about twenty-five years ago, and the services of English trainers were engaged. The Scheldt at Ghent is a little superior to the Cam as a river and a little inferior to the Isis. The sport or recreation rapidly became very popular among the young Flemings, and under clever coaching they made great progress. About twenty years ago they began to compete with the Dutch at Amsterdam and the Germans at Hamburg. They began by holding their own, and after a time they scored some successes. These preliminaries instilled confidence into them, and at last, in 1898, they sent a crew to take part in Henley regatta.

This was thought rather audacious on their part, and, to tell the truth, the contestants thought so themselves, but "nothing venture nothing have." During the first few years of their appearing at Henley the Belgians gained no successes, but some observers remarked that each time they came they were gradually getting nearer. At last in 1905 they got into the final heat for the Grand Challenge Cup. In 1906 they scored their first victory, carrying off the cup to Ghent, where the victors were received with a public triumph. In 1907 they won again, and the cup was again carried off to the banks of the Scheldt. The Olympic games of 1908 witnessed the next struggle, and on this occasion a picked crew of the Leander Club wrested the cup from the Belgian visitors after a hard contest. But at the regatta of 1909 the Belgians were again victorious, no special effort having been made in this country to resist the invaders. In 1910 the Ghent clubs professed their inability to send a representative team and the cup was returned to England. Even if Belgium never scored again at Henley her representatives did enough for glory and to show that in whatever they take up they are doughty adversaries.

Swimming has long been a popular relaxation and swimming baths are to be found in most of the towns. The rivers are also utilized for floating baths. Fencing is also much in vogue, and cercles d'escrime are numerous. The Belgians are not quite on a level with the French or possibly the Italians, but they are better than all other nations. Swedish gymnastics have latterly been introduced and are now compulsory in the army. A still more recent importation is golf, and first-rate links have been laid out ne#r Antwerp. Speaking generally, sport and athletic games have been taken up with greater avidity and pursued with more energy and perseverance by the Flemings than the Walloons, but of course in the upper strata of society race does not tell at all. The temperament of the Walloon does undoubtedly make him more averse to great exertion than is the case with the Fleming.

This reservation does not apply, however, to anything that has to do with shooting game or riding horses. The Ardennes are part of the Walloon country, and here every one is more or less of a sportsman. For the magnate there are extensive preserves in which pheasants, wild duck, woodcock, and deer of all kinds abound; for the rich there are the shooting rights in the communal woods, which can be rented; and for the people there is the free right in the river valleys to snare woodcock and snipe at certain periods. The principal delight of the sportsman is the wild boar battue which goes on through the winter. In the Campine region black game and patridge are found in large quantities, and in the late autumn the delicious tasting "grives" are captured by the thousand. There is a royal chasse at Villers sur Lesse, near Ciergnon, another at the chateau of the Amerois, and as King Albert is a good shot, like his father, the late Comte de Flandre, and his grandfather Leopold I, it is possible that the Ardennes will see more royal battues in the near future than they have at any former period. The provincial noblesse are rather conservative in their methods. For deer and boar they prefer a charge of slugs to the single bullet of a small bore rifle.

The Belgians generally take great pride in their horses. At Antwerp the heavy Flemish breed predominates, and iron-greys are rather in favor for private carriages. In Luxemburg and Liege, the Ardennais, a smaller breed than that of Flanders, but extremely handsome when pure bred, is most often met with. At Brussels English thoroughbreds and Irish hunters are most in demand. A Belgian gentleman is very dissatisfied if he cannot keep one horse, and most of the houses in the fashionable quarter have the porte cochere, which denotes that there is a stable in the rear. A house is then entitled to use the grander designation of a hotel.

Within the last twenty years horse-racing has been introduced into Belgium. It began at Ostend and Spa as fashionable watering-places, with the view of attracting foreign visitors. After a time two racecourses were laid out for Brussels, one at Boitsfort, near the Bois de la Cambre, the other at Groenendael, in the forest of Soignes. Both these places are picturesquely situated and well arranged. The fashionable world goes to Boitsfort in particular during the summer season, and the Avenue Louise is crowded with carriages, and latterly with motor-cars as well, on the occasion of the principal meetings. These are always held on Sundays, and as the prizes have been greatly increased in value, many sportsmen attend from Paris, and even from London. It is said that horse-racing has taken a strong hold on the Belgian mind, and that it has become a national pastime. But this is by no means certain. The majority of those who attend the races at Boitsfort go there simply to meet their friends and show off their dresses, and probably never make a bet. A subscription is taken for the whole season which reduces the charge of admission to each meeting to a very low figure. There are other race-courses in different parts of the country, but they are of minor importance and have no attractions for society. A large proportion of the horses were formerly imported from England, but the native-bred horse is coming to the front, and Belgium has started its own stud book.

Horse-racing in Belgium has as many opponents as here, and the reformers who put down gambling in the casinos and clubs with a ruthless hand often declaim against the evils of the new importation. Although they are not likely to succeed in putting an end to horse-racing altogether, it seems probable that they will succeed in preventing its extension, and the number of meetings is not likely to increase. There is, besides, a stronger reason. The greater prizes to be gained on the French turf will always draw off the most ambitious and successful of owners of racehorses in Belgium.

Enough has been written to show that sport in all its branches and phases is in vigorous life and constant progression among all classes of the Belgian people.

Source: Boulger, Demetrius C. Belgium. Detroit: Published for the Bay View Reading Club, 1913. Print.

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