After having had in ancient Greece the importance of a national institution, linked to the most essential quality of the race, after having been considered for a long time as a pure leisure activity offered to idlers, sport is now regaining some of its former importance and is even tending to regain it entirely.
Contemporary pedagogues are not afraid to assert, in agreement with science, its necessity in the moral development of the schoolboy. Very often, pupils with a heavy mentality, called lazy, are only children whose physical culture - still hindered by a thousand obstacles, unhealthy rooms, insufficient food, etc. - has been neglected.
Thus the adage of the ancients is verified:
Mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy soul in a healthy body.
It is not surprising, therefore, that governments have turned their attention to this means of developing those who make up the nation, which is also suitable for curbing the bastardisation of our European races.
Belgium, quick to think of the means capable of ensuring its prosperity, did not neglect this one. At present, the primary schools, like the atheist schools and the teacher training colleges, have in their programme, alongside their scientific courses, gymnastics courses where the rational development of the body of the child and the adolescent is practised. In this way, the culture of the body and the culture of the soul walk hand in hand, closely linked by the relationships that exist between them.
In addition to these courses, there are many gymnastics societies in Belgium, whose exercises are followed by children, adolescents and even adults.
There is hardly a village of any importance where there is not a sports society affiliated either to the Belgian Federation of Neutral Gymnastics or to the National Federation of Gymnastics and Weapons Societies.
Apart from these popular institutions, there are a respectable number of fencing, lawn tennis, rowing, motoring, etc. societies, located in the large cities, which, although only accessible to people of average means, are no less interesting and no less concerned with the physical and moral well-being of a part of the nation.
From a slightly different point of view, it is worth mentioning those fencing, archery, crossbow and ball games societies, which are centuries old and religiously preserve their ancient customs. Their archaic flavour sometimes enhances the appeal of some local festival or historical event.
This is the broad outline of the history of sport in Belgium.
In order to be convinced of the importance it has assumed, one only had to visit the sports exhibition, located near the machinery gallery, in the very heart of the Exhibition halls.
Among the dedicated organisers who took charge of the intelligent layout and thus ensured its success, we should mention first of all the distinguished Special Government Commissioner, Chevalier Léon Schellekens, a veteran of Exhibitions, who was delegated by the Belgian Government to the Poultry Congresses in Madrid and St. Petersburg and who had already represented the Government at the Exhibitions in Antwerp in 1894, Brussels in 1897, Amsterdam and Chicago. The experience and organisational talent of Chevalier Schellekens were effectively assisted by his secretary, Mr. Alexis Capouillet, the former secretary general of the Liberian section in Brussels in 1897.
Among the organisers, we should also mention Lieutenant-General Londot, president of the group, Lieutenant-Colonel Baron Joseph Van Zuylen van Nievelt, president of one of the group's classes, Gaston Périer, assistant secretary of the group and secretary-reporter of the group's jury, and Léon Polain, the well-known rowingman from Liège.
The sports exhibition was remarkable for the happy arrangement of its installations.
This fact was due as much to the competence of its organiser as to the good understanding which reigns between all the sports societies of the country and of which they were the high representatives.
Twelve separate saloons, sharing the available space, grouped together the main sporting societies of Belgium. The general decoration, in the Louis XVI style, with its white, old gold and light tan tones, provided a delicious setting for the objects.
Light flooded into the lounge and nothing could give a more appropriate atmosphere to these outdoor sports than this brightness.
The various classes in the group included exercises for children and adults, in theory and practice, games and sports for children and adults, equipment for games and sports. A happy idea of the organisers suppressed these arid and all theoretical classifications.
The different classes were integrated and everything related, for example, to gymnastics: companies, equipment exhibited by the manufacturer, books written by theorists, were all in the same room.
This created an order that impressed the visitor favourably. Of the exhibitors in Group XX, the Minister of the Interior and Public Education was the first to be mentioned. The latter exhibited the numerous works of his two distinguished collaborators:
J. Corman and Ch. Remy.
There was a historical note on the teaching of gymnastics in teacher training colleges and primary schools, some books, brochures, albums, circulars, etc.
Among the sports societies themselves, the Royal and Knightly Confraternity of Saint Michael in Ghent stood out. This powerful fencing guild has existed since 1613. Its visitors' book was signed by the most illustrious princes and the most famous fencers since Albert and Isabella.
Its stand was decorated with remarkably painted portraits of the chief deans of the brotherhood since 1615 and the complete 17th century furniture of the old Confrères chapel.
Artistic groups, photographs of fencers, and an old banner completed the decoration of the saloon, where a reflection of the ancient opulence of Flanders was offered, perpetuated to us. One of the most prominent sportsmen, Mr. Albert Feyerick, now presides over the destiny of the old Ghent club whose motto: "Don't avoid, never seek", sums up its glorious past.
In the same field of sport, the Brussels Fencing Club occupies a remarkable place. This powerful circle, founded by Mr. Fierlants, exhibited for the first time in Belgium its famous gallery of all renowned Belgian fencers painted by the master Regamey. A remarkable collection of old weapons, sports memorabilia and numerous trophies attracted attention. The motto of the fencing club is, like that of the Ghent club, eloquent: "The right way and no worries".
The elegant and lavish sport of yachting was brilliantly represented by the remarkable stand of the relatively young but very active Ostend Yacht Club. In the centre of the show, the club exhibited an absolutely remarkable "one-design" sailing boat and on its stand, numerous models of yachts and reductions of new inventions made in this special field of sport by the club members.
An appropriate decoration of oars, gaffs, maritime pavilions, buoys, ropes, yacht chairs, made of wicker, completed the ornamentation of the stand and helped to evoke the pleasure that the practice of this sport can bring.
The two powerful associations which govern cycling in Belgium: the Ligue Vélocipédique and the Touring-Club competed at almost neighbouring stands, showing the followers of this popular sport the results of their activity: maps, itineraries, admirable organisation of the service of hotels and repairers. The Touring-Club is especially concerned in Belgium with the repair of roads, the Ligue Vélocipédique devotes its efforts to the organisation of sporting events concerning the world of cyclists: races, championships, etc. These two organisations complement each other admirably for the greater good of all sportsmen.
After cycling, and perhaps as much as cycling, gymnastics is the most popular sport in Belgium. The numerous trophies exhibited by the Belgian Gymnastics Federation and by the National Federation of Catholic Gymnastics and Arms Societies proved to all how numerous and decisive the successes of the Belgians in this field were.
The Automobile Club of Belgium, this powerful association to which we owe the organisation of this superb annual joust known as the "Circuit of the Ardennes" and the interesting shows which, every year, introduce the public to the constant improvements of the new locomotion, had an absolutely remarkable stand.
It was decorated with an instructive and amusing frieze signed by Gaudy, faithfully representing the history of the progress of the car since 1896.
In the centre of the exhibition, a superb cup, contained in an elegant display case, attracted attention.
Other exhibits, no less interesting, were also on display.
These were the remarkable saloons of the Royal Golf Club of Belgium, much admired by the followers of this new worldly sport; of the Belgian Union of Athletic Sports Societies, which groups together all the fervent runners and footballers; of the Society for the Encouragement of Sports and of the Belgian Lawn Tennis League, which exhibited a remarkable collection of the cups and trophies won in recent years by the Belgian champions of this distinguished game.
These saloons were decorated with an appropriate decoration that the photographs we are publishing dispense us from describing.
As mentioned above, a number of individual exhibitors contributed to the decoration of one or other saloon or to the documentation of the sport represented there.
In the first instance, Mr. Louis Schellekens exhibited the flag of the Aalst Fencing Club and an interesting collection of old shooting weapons.
Some manufacturers then presented a series of devices constituting equipment for games and sports. They were MM. Jules Carlier, of Houdeng-Goegnies, with carved wooden papegais, bows, arrows, plumes; Crutzen et Cie, of Dison; Emile Dujardin, of Leuze, with clothes for sports; Pierre Selderslagh, of Brussels, with a new button marker for combat sword; Paul Van der Velde, of Brussels, with complete saddles of the Argentine Republic, Chile and Paraguay.
Mr. Henri Denève, from Mons, with a Swedish pedagogical gymnastics method, an album of drawings and a musical collection; Mr. Louis Dries, from Brussels, with his book: "Gymnastics at the primary school, at the nursery school and at the kindergarten"; Mr. Jules Robellus, from Ghent, with a new patented orthopaedic gymnastics apparatus completed the exhibition which offered an interesting presentation of the history of sports in Belgium.
©Livre d'Or de l'Exposition Universelle de Liège 1905