That one medal was a bronze by Evi Van Acker in the Laser Redial sailing. Flemish fans at home and at the event itself off the coast of Weymouth cheered wildly as the 26-year-old from Zaffelare steered herself into a medal position at the last minute.
The Belgian Olympic team contained some 115 hopefuls, of which more than two-thirds were Flemish. Belgium as a whole was able to win two more medals, a bronze in judo for Charline Van Snick and a silver for Lionel Cox in the 50m rifle prone. Still, the overall performance failed to match the high expectations set by the Flemish when they set off for London three weeks ago and Belgian delegation head Eddy De Smedt, who set a target of six medals.
The biggest disappointment came with the Borlée twins from Brussels. Some 2.4 million television viewers across the country watched as Jonathan and Kevin lined up for the final of the 400m, whose seven others runners all hailed from the Caribbean. But the twins appeared to have burned out in the heats and semi-finals, with Kevin trailing in fifth in 44.81 and Jonathan sixth in 44.83. In fact, Jonathan’s 44.43 second, national record-breaking heat would have won him the silver medal in the finals.
They were back in competition in the final of the 400m relay – along with Nils Duerinck (in for the injured Jente Bouckaert) and Antoine Gillet – but the team came sixth.
Tia Hellebaut, who won Belgium’s only gold medal in Beijing four years ago, could only manage a fifth place in the high jump. On her second comeback after giving birth to a second child last year, the 34-year-old failed to clear the 2m mark, well behind the 2.05m winning jump of Russia’s Anna Chicherova.
Kim Clijsters was knocked out in the tennis quarter-finals to world number three, Maria Sharapova. And in the cycling road race, Jürgen Roelandts finished in seventh place position, with Philippe Gilbert 19th (he later came 17th in the time trial) and Tom Boonen 28th.
While the British Daily Mirror jokingly called Flemish track cyclist Gijs Van Hoecke’s night on the town a gold medal performance (with many accompanying photos of the drunken 20-year-old being carried out of a bar), the Belgian Olympic Committee failed to see the funny side: Van Hoecke was ordered to pack his bags and was sent straight home.
But there were also close calls for the Flemish. In the decathlon, Hans Van Alphen took fourth place, with 8,447 points, even winning the concluding 1,500 metres. Ilse Heylen narrowly lost out on a bronze medal in the women’s under-52kg judo. And in hockey, where Belgium’s men and women’s teams were both competing in their first Olympics, there were some impressive performances, including the men’s team Red Lions beating South Korea, India and Spain to claim a fifth place final position.
Flemish sport now needs to find ways to get back into the game. As other countries have shown – notably the host nation, which came third in the medals table – shrewd investment can deliver dividends over the years. There are potential medal winners in Flanders, but it will require fresh resources, different policy priorities and hard graft if they are to strike gold in Rio in 2016.