The Brussels Boxing Academy is a cradle for Belgian boxing champions. At the same time, some of its former members went to Syria to fight for ISIS. One more reason for the club to take care of its athletes on a social level as well, coach Tom Flachet explains.
During summer holiday care, children are running around in the gym of the De Kleurdoos primary school, located on Rue du Boulet right in the middle between the stock exchange and the municipality of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean. It is also the home of the Brussels Boxing Academy (BBA), and in September, training will once again start at Brussel’s most well-known boxing club.
The Brussels Boxing Academy was founded in 2003, coach Tom Flachet recalls. “Back then, Mohamed Maalem was a fitness instructor at Chicago Youth Club and I worked at a popular martial arts centre in Jette. We founded this boxing club together and specialised in traditional English boxing. That’s the most commonly practised style of boxing. We grew a little every year. At this stage, about two to three hundred boxers train here every week. We have four professional coaches: Mohamed Idrissi, Mohamed Maalem, Anas Lamouissi and myself, and some of our young boxers have become coaching assistants themselves by now. We have been an official member of the boxing association since 2007 and we also participate in competitions.”
BBA is a member of D’Broei, an organisation at eight Brussels youth centres that helps young people grow more self-reliant. “Our institution is accessible to everyone and reaches young people through boxing. At the heart lies our social commitment to youths from disadvantaged suburbs such as Anneessens or Molenbeek. A highlight of our social commitment are our annual trips to the Ardennes or mountain areas in other countries. On these trips, many questions about their lives come up for these young people. We’re planning to make this approach even more professional by involving psychologists and social workers in the future.”
Boxing at BBA also gives athletes the opportunity to participate in other interesting projects. “Sometimes, casting agencies call because they are looking for young people with a specific profile. We’re currently trying to motivate our young boxers to get involved in a cooperation with the Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Arts, a new museum in Molenbeek. One of its co-founders trains here. We have already organised a first visit led by the coaches, but not many youngsters came along. We hope this will change in the future. In 2012, some of our boxers were on stage at the Royal Flemish Theatre for Sleeping Elephant
, a play about Muhammad Ali. There’s also a lovely film about our club, called Champions
Tom Flachet | Photo: © Sarah Dheedene
Social work and sports go hand in hand at BBA. “Sometimes, talented young boxers suddenly stop coming to training because they don’t receive much support from their families or they don’t have a job. If we want to achieve good results on a sporting level, we also need to get involved on a social level,” Flachet cites as an example.
“Being involved in sports also has social benefits,” the coach adds. “You learn to talk to others, for example by saying: ‘You’re hitting quite hard, maybe you want to try that a little more gently.’ That kind of dialogue is important for personal development. You also learn to act in a sportsmanlike way, to watch your diet and weight and to match yourself against others in a controlled situation – not on the street.”
Flachet believes that diversity and living together require organising. “People are rooted in their own culture and community, and you see that in boxing as well. That’s why we would like to see a balanced mix of the Brussels population here. Young people from disadvantaged suburbs hear about us by word of mouth. In order to reach other target groups, we work with students’ organisations and offer trial classes in schools. We also organise classes especially for women. Since then, we’ve seen an increase of women and girls at our club.”
“It’s important to us to have intercultural contact without any issues during training. Physical contact is essential in boxing, but for many people, that doesn’t come naturally. If someone makes an inappropriate remark such as ‘Women don’t belong in a boxing club’, we react to that. Thus everyone has to find their space at the club as far as hygiene, religion and language are concerned.”
“These days, many refugees train here as well. They come from the Brussels Klein Kasteeltje reception centre and other establishments for refugees. This way, people who can’t find a place in society can find a place here. If BBA manages to do that, who says it can’t be done elsewhere as well?”
Flachet recently spoke with a juvenile court judge who thought that if any institution could change something in Brussels, it was BBA and its team. “If young people come into contact with other cultures at a boxing club, they feel like they belong to a community. Many young people in Brussels are completely withdrawn these days. And then they get into mischief.”
Flachet knows what he is talking about. A small number of young men who trained at BBA went to Syria to fight alongside the ‘Islamic State’.
“After some of our members went to Syria, we’ve spoken a lot about that with the boys who knew them. Most of them don’t condone their decision but they still try to understand it. They say: ‘Those young people reject society. If they have nothing to lose, why would they stay here?’ They don’t go to Syria for ideological or religious reasons so much as because they are socially and individually at a dead end.”
Discussions about religion aren’t taboo at the club, Flachet emphasises. “Many young people are searching for an identity. They wonder: ‘Why is my parents’ religion continually exposed to attacks? Why shouldn’t I practise that religion?’ We don’t have good answers for these questions but it’s important to talk about them openly.”
A small number of young men from Molenbeek and Anderlecht have ruined Brussels’ image, but Flachet is convinced the vast majority cast a positive light on their city. “Someone like 18-year-old Si Mohamed Ketbi from Schaerbeek who competed at the Rio Olympics in Taekwondo puts Brussels on the map. And there are many young talents in Brussels. We have five Belgian champions at our club this year. Only one of them didn’t grow up in a disadvantaged suburb. That already says it all.”
“There are seventeen times fewer opportunities to practice sports in Molenbeek than in other Belgian municipalities with the same number of residents, such as Namur, Mechelen and Leuven. When I tell foreign journalists that there is only one swimming pool in Molenbeek, they are flabbergasted.”
“At BBA, we dream of a large Brussels boxing venue, a hall with a central ring where encounters, tournaments and competitions can be held, like the Palais des Sports Marcel-Cerdan in Paris that was named after the famous French boxer. A place where young people can meet as spectators or amateurs, where intercultural encounters happen through boxing. Brussels deserves that.”