Sport Saves A Nation?

Tia HellebautOne of the lesser reported stories of 2008 has been the continuing political turmoil in Belgium. In June 2007, an election was held: for nine consecutive months afterwards, the politicians found it impossible to assemble a working coalition to govern the country. Finally, a deal was struck putting the controversial Christian Democrat leader, Yves Leterme, into the hot seat as Prime Minister.

Because no devolution agreement was possible between Belgium’s French speaking Walloon and Dutch speaking Flemish communities, Leterne tried to tender his resignation in July. Had King Albert II accepted it, it is likely that the country would have been paralysed by a constitutional crisis. The situation remains precarious; Erik Jones, a columnist for the Guardian, wrote on August 20th:

…there is a real sense that something fundamental to the continuation of Belgium as a country is at stake. The constitutional matters are only the beginning. Questions about how much power should be devolved from federal to regional level, or about whether voters in communities around Brussels should cast ballots in Flemish or in French are difficult, but not impossible, to resolve.

I lived in Belgium for a time and understand both French and Dutch; the diversity of the country was part of its appeal to me. Belgium has not only Dutch speakers and French speakers, it also has a small German speaking enclave, and immigrant communities in Brussels (a particularly large one comes from Morocco). The idea that such a culturally rich country that has existed for nearly 180 years would suddenly crack apart is a blow to the notion that identity can be something larger than a particular linguistic or ethnic group. If Belgium, largely peaceful and relatively prosperous, cannot hold – what then for the European Union? Or nations like the United States, which have large segments of the population that are culturally dissimilar?

As such, I am a supporter of organisations such as Pro Belgica, which strives to keep the country together. Indeed, they have to pull themselves together for their own sake. As Erik Jones noted:

The stalemate cannot go on forever. While Belgian politicians have wrestled with their constitutional and political demons, the world economy has taken a turn for the worse, pulling Belgium down with it. As a result, growth has slowed, the country’s balance of trade is negative for the first time in over a decade, and inflation is among the highest in Europe (and running faster than any time in the 25 years). Indeed the situation has deteriorated so rapidly that Belgian policymakers have been unable to keep up. When Leterme announced his government’s planned economic programme in mid-July, the press immediately pointed out that his assumptions were outdated and his calculations flawed. The fact that the Belgian planning bureau produced those calculations only last May was no excuse.

Finding a symbol around which the Belgians could unify might help the situation. Although the King has been heroic in his efforts to keep the nation together, there needs to be a “feel good” figure, who could show the Belgians that they’re one nation after all.

Today, that figure may have emerged: Ms. Tia Hellebaut, a former pentathlete turned high jumper. She produced a jump of 2.05m which was sufficient to win her the gold medal, the first gold medal in athletics for the country since 1964. This was an added bonus on top of the silver won by the Belgian team (Olivia Borlée, Kim Gevaert, Hanna Mariën and Elodie Ouedraogo) in the women’s 4 x 100m relay. If the politicians of Belgium have any sense at all, they will seize upon this success, and public accolades for Ms. Hellebaut and the 4 x 100m team will be forthcoming.

There are discussions in Britain as well as other countries about the value of elite sport. Belgium could be a test case; with a bit of luck, it may provide enough of a patriotic kick to save a nation.

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