At London 2012, my first Olympic Games, I didn’t have the opportunity to go to the Opening Ceremony – I was competing early the next morning and so I decided it would be just too detrimental to my performance to go to the Ceremony. I watched some of it on television, but watching it is never the same as being there. I went to the Closing Ceremony though and because I hadn’t attended the Opening Ceremony, I was really looking forward to going. As a Belgian, we don’t have anything like the Commonwealth Games or Asian Games so in 2012, the Olympic Games was the only multi-sport event we were a part of, so I was really looking forward to walking into a huge stadium because that’s something that I’d never experienced in my life.
The Closing Ceremony was great fun – my sister, Lianne, was there too because she’s also a badminton player and had qualified for the Belgian team for London too. And after three weeks in the Athletes’ Village living with the rest of the Belgian team, we’d all become really good friends, so it was really fun to be at the Ceremony with them all. We’d been all over London together, so we’d had all these great experiences and then at the end of the Games, we had this fantastic evening.
I think most of the athletes have a similar feeling at the Closing Ceremony – it was pretty emotional. It really felt like closure. For me, the Olympic Games had been a goal for so many years so when the torch goes out, you walk quietly to your bus and that’s it, it’s over, it feels quite strange. At the Closing Ceremony, I wasn’t thinking about the Games in four years’ time in Rio - at that moment, I was too busy just enjoying the experience of London.
There’s one moment of the Closing Ceremony in London that really sticks out for me. It’s when Emeli Sandé sang “Read All About It”. And as she was singing, we were waiting to walk into the Olympic Stadium and there were all these images of the Games on the big video screen. The whole stadium was very quiet just watching these images of athletes during the Games showing so many emotions. It was beautiful. I still watch that video sometimes because that was my favourite moment of the Closing Ceremony.
Four years later at Rio 2016, I got the opportunity to go to the Opening Ceremony. I was really curious about how it would feel to be there because as a child, I watched so many opening ceremonies. My father would always record it from the television and I loved watching it – I’d watch every single nation walk in.
So Rio was the first time that I got the chance to be a part of it. As you’re waiting to walk into the stadium, it’s complete chaos. The officials were saying “you need to walk in line, you need to leave at least two metres between each of the teams, walk properly”, but everybody’s so excited that as soon as you get into the stadium, it becomes completely chaotic. It was an amazing experience.
It was also very special that my sister was there in Rio too. For us both to have competed at London and Rio is pretty amazing. It was a tough qualification process for me to get to Rio but I know that my sister also sacrificed a lot and she worked so hard to get there too. I was very nervous about her securing qualification and so when we both made the team, it was like the circle was complete - we both achieved what we wanted. It would have felt totally different if I had made it to Rio but she hadn’t, so us both being there together was a key part of the Games being so incredible.
There’s a great atmosphere within the Belgian team. We are not the biggest of teams – we had around 100 athletes at both London and Rio - and so everyone gets to know everyone else which is great. What is really special about being a part of the Belgian team is that everyone is so supportive of each other, and it also means that you get to learn about the other sports and other athletes. I was the only male badminton player for Belgium in Rio and I was sharing a flat with a weightlifter who had to lose three kilograms in half a day before he competed so he wasn’t in the best mood. But it’s so interesting to see how athletes from different sports prepare and I have so much respect for them.
I knew that Rio would be my last Olympic Games and I felt completely at ease with that. I had decided a long time before the Games that Rio would be my last one, so at the Closing Ceremony I had made up my mind that I was going to enjoy it to the full. I was a little bit sad, but I was mostly having fun because I knew how lucky I was to be experiencing it. In Rio, we were able to sit in the stands and enjoy the show which was fantastic, but I remember the emotions I felt much more than I remember the acts who were performing on stage. It was a great evening, even though I knew it would be my last Olympics. It’s a privilege if you are able to choose when you’re going to retire, so I was lucky enough to be able to do that and I was happy with my choice. Rio was a good one to finish on.