1914 started prosperously for the Belgian sporting world. The years before sporting life had become more and more structured with well organized federations, regular regional and national competitions and an increasing professionalism in the most popular sporting disciplines.
The start of the First World War would make an abrupt and violent end to all the good intentions and expectations.
From the moment the German troupes invaded Belgium on the 4th of August 1914 all sports competitions were canceled. Ten thousands of young men were called under arms, among which also a lot of sports athletes. The most of them stayed at the Western front for four long years, some of them even died in the trenches or were taken prisoners of war. Others had fled the country and lived in refugee camps in the Netherlands. The few lucky ones could escape the violence of war and stayed in their hometown.
In November 1914 however the Southwesterly progression of the German troupes came to a standstill near the French borders, consequently Belgium was divided in several strategic areas.
In the fifteen kilometer wide operations area near the front (Operationsgebiet) and the coastal areas (Marinegebiet) no sport and leisure activities were allowed at all. The rest of occupied Belgium was divided into the Etappengebiet and the Generalgouvernement. The Etappengebiet was a logistical and administrative zone controlled by the 4th German army for the distribution and supply from and to the ops area of fresh and returning troupes, armory, vehicles, etc. The Generalgouvernement was an area of occupation managed by the German civil authorities.
In order to provide a smooth transition of all the material and equipment and to avoid revolts, espionage and sabotage a harsh regime was installed in the whole occupied zone, imposing several restrictions on the mobility and the social life of the local people. Crossing municipal borders for example was prohibited as well as all festivities and entertainments on public roads and places, and also all kinds of meetings and congresses, especially those by politically parties and trade unions.
The absence of athletes who were abroad, the decreased mobility in the occupied zone for the athletes, referees and clubs, and the crippling of the sport federations had an immediate freezing impact upon the management and development of the Belgian sporting life at all levels.
Except for a few isolated events in Brussels all cycling races on public roads were forbidden. Consequently the races moved from the public streets to the private velodromes, the classic races included. The road maps were projected on the track, if a check point in a city after a certain distance was reached the racers had to stop, get a stamp on their application form, take the necessary drinks and food, get on their bike again and continue the race. This phenomenon was not new, already in 1911 the classic Sedan(Fr)-Brussels was competed on the velodrome of Linthout (Brussels). During the winter when the velodromes were closed competitions on rollers and home-trainers were organized in gyms and pubs.
In May 1915 the steering committee of the cycling union declared in a letter addressed to their members, clubs, organizers and the managers of the velodromes, not to be able to send any representatives or referees to the events. This proves that the union was not able to manage its clubs and competitions anymore in a decent way.
As the cycling races disappeared from the street scene and some of the most famous velodromes were demolished in 1916 the perception grew in the people’s mind that the cycling sport faced a silent death.
Of all sports athletes the football players were the hardest hit by the war as most of them were called under arms and stayed at the Western front.
At the end of November 1914 locally some informal football games were organized again near Brussels and Antwerp, but as the restoration of the country was of bigger importance, the first timid steps to restart the regular sports competitions were taken in February-March 1915. It became quickly clear that the restrictions of the Germans would make a regular national competition impossible. The newspaper Het Vlaamsche Nieuws reported on January 17, 1915
“… that the expensive and difficult access to other Belgian cities, and the impossibility for the football clubs to demand the same entree fees as before the war, make it impossible to organize a national or even a partial competition. A regional championship with clubs in Antwerp and its suburbs could generate enough interest, insofar as a solid regulation is provided”.
Football had to pay its price just like the other sporting disciplines, but nevertheless the immediate consequences of the prohibition of crossing the municipally borders, it even increased its overall popularity as new football clubs were founded at a fast pace, especially in the countryside.
The equestrian sports disappeared completely as most of the horses were confiscated for military purposes by both the allies and the Germans. Most of them would never return to their homeland, according to estimates approximately eight to nine million horses were killed during the war.
Consequently the gamble activities on horse races shifted quickly their focus on dog races.
As all motorbikes and cars were confiscated for military purposes, there were no competitions at all in occupied Belgium. A lot of the members of the Belgian Automobielclub served as stretcher-bearer in the Belgian Red Cross during the war. Their clubs and federations did not have any reason for existence anymore.
Also the airplane competitions were understandably canceled as all the pilots and their planes served in the young Belgian air force.
Of course the other sporting disciplines were also hit in a similar way. Competitions could continue as local events with local athletes and local spectators. The indoor sports competitions like boxing, wrestling, roller skating, bowling and billiard could survive more easily than the outdoor sports like lawn tennis and golf although their regional and national competitions were also canceled.
But necessity is the mother of invention and innovation, so in order to survive the sporting world found out new ways to put itself into the spot light. Athletic competitions and cycling races were often organized together in the velodromes to get more spectators and to generate more revenue. Some disciplines like swimming paid more attention to organized demonstrations and courses to recruit new members. Other sports like gymnastics focused more upon the disciplinary and educational aspect in order to get more attention from the public schools.
The First World War and the German restrictions were largely responsible for the desportification and deinstitutionalization that occurred at all levels and in all disciplines of the Belgian sports movement.
Most of the athletes were directly involved in the warfare, while the others were kept prisoners in camps or in their own village.
At the mid-level the clubs experienced difficulties to organize events and certain sporting disciplines that required a specific infrastructure faced major problems to survive by lack of material and decreasing income from sponsoring and entrance fees.
The general deinstitutionalization manifested itself at the top level as the overall structures, the sports federations, were not able to provide any guidance or support during competitions nor to manage their underlying (sub)levels.
Fortunately the innovative local population found new ways to preserve their sports culture until the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918.
Article © Filip Walenta