The Olympic spirit has clearly taken over the Hofstade recreation park in Zemst, to the north of Brussels, run by the Flemish sport and recreation federation Bloso. From the entrance of the park to the Sportimonium museum in a beach house, visitors are guided by billboards with information about all Belgian Olympic medal-winners since the previous games in London, 64 years ago.
At the Olympic Passage exhibition inside the museum, a wall of fame honours these Olympic heroes. You can relive the performances of Baron Gaston Roelants – the Olympic champion in the 3,000m steeplechase of 1964 – and all other medallists through TV and radio broadcasts from the time.
The International Olympic Committee last year awarded the Sportimonium the title of “Olympic Museum”, which makes it part of a network of 12 Olympic Museums worldwide. Chris Schwartz, responsible for scientific research at Sportimonium, shows me the showpiece: the Olympic flag raised at the seventh Olympiad in Antwerp, in 1920. “This was the first Olympic flag ever,” she explains.
The Antwerp Games not only introduced the flag: It was also the first time doves were released during the opening ceremony and the first time the Olympic oath was pledged. This honour fell to Victor Boin, from Brussels, whose private collection is set up in an exposition at the Victor Boin Cabinet.
The multi-faceted man won medals in the disciplines of water polo and fencing and was also a sports journalist, war pilot and cultural protector. From 1955 to 1965, he was president of the Belgian Olympic Committee and he remained president of the Belgian Sports Federation for the Disabled until his death in 1974.
Boin was the figurehead of Belgian sports at the time, but archer Hubert Van Innis became the most successful Olympic athlete. The local hero from Zemst won four gold and two silver medals at the 1920 Olympics, bringing his total Olympic medal count to nine. The Olympic Passage includes a souvenir plaque dedicated to him.
The Antwerp Games proved auspicious for the whole Belgium team, which won the most number of medals in its history (36), with the title in the football tournament a highlight. The organisation went well, although the conditions for the athletes were primitive compared to those enjoyed by today’s competitors.
Starting blocks were not yet in use, so the athletes running on the cinder track of the Beerschot Stadium had to dig their own starting marks. High jumpers and pole-vaulters did not land on comfortable crash mats but in a sandpit. Certain Olympic disciplines from that time would also raise eyebrows today, such as weightlifting with one arm and tug-of-wars.
The Olympic competition then included an artistic programme, with contests in architecture, music, literature, sculpture and painting. Belgian artists won one or more prizes in each of the five categories. Among them was Alfred Ost, who won the bronze medal in painting for his poster “The Soccer Player”, displayed at the Sportimonium.
You can also admire posters advertising the events in Antwerp, plus several photos and medals of this edition. But the Olympic Passage offers an overview of the whole Olympic history, from a scale model of Zeus’s sanctuary in ancient Olympia around the second century BC to an Olympic torch that carried the flame of the Athens Games in 2004. Also fun is the collection of Olympic mascots and of the running shoes worn by legendary athletes such as Gaston Roelants and the most recent Belgian medal-winner – high jumper Tia Hellebaut.
The origin of Sportimonium (a combination of the words “sport” and “patrimonium”) lies in a scientific research programme set up at the University of Leuven in 1973 to study the history of folk games in Flanders, and the museum has not forgotten its roots. The permanent exhibition appropriately starts with an explanation of these “Cinderellas of the sport”.
“We call them Cinderellas because their worth is mostly undervalued,” says Schwartz. “Now, sports such as kaatsen and beugelen are only played in East Flanders and Limburg respectively, but they are the predecessors of modern tennis and billiards.” You can not only read about the variety of these indigenous sporting traditions, but also play trabol (flat bowls), struifvogel (a precursor of darts), krulbol (curl bowls) and many more in the traditional games park. On rainy days, you can try your hand at rekker trekker or sjoelbak indoors.
Throughout the permanent exhibition, the history of sports is thematically illustrated. You follow the democratisation of sports from a pastime of the male elite in “British” clubs to recreation available to everyone, also on the domain in Hofstade. You see the evolution from the organisation of hot-air balloon rallies at the beginning of the 20th century to current adventure sports such as bodyboarding, rafting and sky surfing. Flemish sporting heroes like goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff, boxer Jean-Pierre Coopman and motocross rider Joël Smets have donated their gloves, boxing robe and motorcycle.
Children can enjoy mental exercise with knowledge quizzes or test themselves physically at the Sports Lab. In the workshop “Meten met atleten” (Competing with athletes), they can measure their strength, flexibility, endurance, balance and speed in 10 physical challenges and compare their results to those of top Flemish athletes like sprinter Hanna Mariën, former gymnast Aagje Vanwalleghem and rower Christophe Raes.
For visually impaired visitors, Sportimonium has installed a trail of tactile boxes and audio installations. After the visit, everyone can have a go at a game of Showdown, a form of tactile table tennis. Prepare to leave this museum sweating – it’s quite a workout.
To revive the past artistic competition during the Olympic Games, the Sportimonium organised the International Cartoon Festival Zemst: Olympic Games London. The museum received more than 500 cartoons from more than 46 countries, of which around 100 are on display until 9 September. The winning cartoon is by the Brussels illustrator Constantin Sunnerberg. A selection of the cartoons will decorate the Belgian House in the Olympic village in London, and kids can use their creativity to participate in the cartoon festival for children.