2023 in sport: The Belgian athletes who made sporting history
When it comes to sport, the Belgian public's attention tends to focus on football and cycling, where the country traditionally does well. But Belgium also excelled this year in sports that are not so well known. These athletes made sporting history in 2023.
Luca Brecel has been regarded as a rising talent in the world of snooker for at least a decade. He first came to the attention of the Belgian public at the age of 12 when he won the Belgian Open. His international breakthrough came in 2012 when he became the youngest player ever to qualify for the World Snooker Championship, at the age of 17.
In the years that followed, Brecel was unable to outgrow his status as a rising talent. He only qualified for five of the following 10 World Championships, and never won a single game in the tournament.
That finally changed in 2023 after Brecel qualified for his seventh World Championship. Victories over former champion Mark Williams and defending champion Ronnie O'Sullivan soon followed. "I have never seen anyone hit the ball as well as he did," said O'Sullivan after his defeat.
On 1 May, Brecel stunned the snooker world by beating four-time champion Mark Selby to become the first player from continental Europe to win the tournament.
Brecel finally fulfilled his early promise in 2023, a year that could mark the start of years of Belgian dominance in the sport. Brecel is only 28 years old. By comparison, Selby celebrated his 40th birthday this year, while Williams and O'Sullivan, the current world number one, are both 48.
The Belgian Cats, Belgium's women's basketball team, have undergone an amazing transformation in the last 10 years. The team went from failing to qualify for their fourth European Championship in a row in 2015 to becoming European champions in 2023.
Much of this success can be attributed to one player: Emma Meesseman. She is one of the best female basketball players in the world and has the record to prove it. She has won the WNBA, the Turkish Super League, six Russian national leagues and five Euroleagues, basketball's equivalent of football's Champions League.
Meesseman led her team to the final, where they beat favourites Spain 64-58. She towered over the competition and was named in the EuroBasket 2023 All-Star Five as well as the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
The Cats' next goal is to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, with qualifiers starting in February. The popularity of women's basketball in Belgium has soared since the European title, with more than 10,000 tickets sold for the qualifier against the US.
Belgium had a remarkable ice skating year in 2023, with athletes in three different disciplines winning at least one medal on the ice.
Short track veteran Bart Swings became world mass start champion for the first time, securing the fourth gold medal of his career and cementing his legacy as the best ice skater in Belgian history.
Meanwhile, figure skater Loena Hendrickx finished second at the Grand Prix Finals in Beijing and won Skate America. Her second place at the European Championships and third place at the World Championships made her the most successful Belgian figure skater of all time.
Last but not least, siblings Hanne and Stijn Desmet compete at the very top of the short track discipline. In a first for the sport, both Stijn and Hanne became European 1,000m short track champions this year. They also took individual silver in the 1,500m and team silver in the mixed relay.
These successes are somewhat surprising given the lack of infrastructure in Belgium. Ice skaters have to move to another country to train properly. To support future Belgian talent, Sport Vlaanderen is building new ice rinks in two places in Flanders.
Belgian snooker player Luca Brecel © BELGA PHOTO YORICK JANSENS