The Borlee Brothers

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The Borlee brothers, athletic’s best double act.

Sibling rivalry can be bad at the worst of times; there will always be the sense of looking over your shoulder at your little brother or sister progressing in size and ability.

Add to this rivalry, the dimension of being born on the same day, looking exactly the same and it would be hard to envisage ever escaping that person's shadow. The Borlee brothers have however, used this rivalry to their advantage. Trained by their father Jacques, a 15 time Belgium champion himself, the twins have taken a major stranglehold on Belgian and European 400metres in recent years. In taking medals and records a plenty, brothers Jonathon and Kevin have become established on the world scene.

Jonathon who is older by 5 minutes and holds the Belgium 400m record but it is Kevin who is the most successful; gaining six european and world medals in the past three years. This included taking bronze at the last World Outdoor Championships in Daegu.

Although their rivalry has only come to national attention in recent years, it is something that has unsurprisingly, existed since childhood: “We have been racing with one another since we were kids. At school we won every cross we ran and our agreement was that one year I let him win while the next one, it was his turn. The only way to cancel our agreement was the arrival of someone better than us… that person never came at school.”

Whilst that sort of negotiation no longer exists between the pair, both agree that despite the increased scrutiny on their rivalry, it is not difficult to train with each other: (Jonathon)“ Not at all. I always say that every athlete wants to find an athlete as good as him at practice (just for practice) and that he can get along with. However because of the rivalries it’s not easy.  With my brother we are good teammates and good friends so it’s really nice to train together and we always push each other to the limit so we know after practice we both gave 100%.”

(Kevin): “Not at all. I think it’s even better to have my twin brother training with me. In some training groups, teammates can’t get along with each other just because of their rivalries and I think this can affect the efficiency of their training. Jo and I always push each other to the limit to make sure we both improve, and the good thing is that there is no rivalry between us. I think I couldn’t have another teammates as good as my brother.”

As for who was the most successful during their junior days, Jonathon is diplomatic on the subject: “It is difficult to say since we both have/had different assets. In the end, both of us were ‘gifted’ in sports; we were just using our strengths differently. For instance, when playing soccer, Kevin was striker while I played defense.” Kevin however doesn’t reply, perhaps indicating the true answer to the question.

Possibly the most notable father son coaching partnership in athletics history is that of Sebastian and Peter Coe. When competing their relationship was totally removed from family bias with Coe senior famously calling his son ‘My athlete’. Perhaps luckily for the twins, their relationships with father Jacques is less detached: “For me it’s more a mix of both (dad and coach) on and off the track.

“He knows us very well and I think it makes it easier to communicate. I trust him 100% knowing he will always try to do what’s best for us.” The only real point where the twins were away from their father’s supervision was when they studied in America at Florida State University from 2008.

They both competed at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championships, where Jonathon notably beat his brother in 400m, in a race he ranks among his favourities.

Despite it being arguably his best result against his brother, the Belgian disputes that the result in itself, played a large part in what was a major progression made in America: “Going to the US was part of a process. The event alone did not make me the athlete I am now. However I really appreciated the team spirit that is much stronger there. This, together with a great coach (Ken Harden) helped me to go beyond my limits even more. I remember Ken telling me when I could not stand up at practice with one set left: “Defeat the workout, don’t let it defeat you”. I will always remember that training session because I did that last set and that was the first time I threw up at practice (I don’t throw up easily at all)!”

In spite of having slightly lesser success whilst there, Kevin also saw the merits of his time abroad: “I think that was one of the best choices I could have made at that time. College experience was just great, I had an amazing coach (Ken Harnden) who taught me a lot about racing and I learned a lot from the team spirit there was in the group.”

Rightly the brothers have received publicity and support for their performances on the track since both making their major international debuts at the 2008 Olympics. Where they were both part of a Belgian 4*400m relay team that just missed out on medalling at the games, finishing in 5th place and both made the semi final of the individual event.

It was however another Belgian relay team who were to take the plaudits at the games - by winning silver, the women’s 4 x 100metre team set a new Belgian record. In the team was the well-known Kim Gevaert, Hanna MariënÉlodie Ouédraogo and an athlete close to the twins, sister Olivia. An athlete also trained by father Jacques, Olivia also has a world bronze relay medal from the previous year in Osaka.

Due to her medal in Beijing it could be argued that despite lesser press coverage, she is the most successful member of the Borlee family to date, something both brothers consider slightly ironic: “That’s kind of funny see it that way. Olivia was the first in our family to perform at the Olympics and with her medal she received a lot of media coverage. Unfortunately, she recently got some troubles with her Achilles but I am sure she will come back on the front stage very soon.”

With Beijing providing the groundstrokes for the four years leading up to the next Olympic games, success at the World and the European Championships during those years led to high expectations for London 2012. Both athletes improved individually on results from 2008, Kevin was closely followed by Jonathon across the line when they placed 5th and 6th respectively in the individual final. Yet they performed worse in the relay finishing in 6th as opposed to 5th four years earlier

With that in mind both brothers were philosophical on their experience of the games (Jonathon):” It was completely different to Beijing. Beijing was my first senior championship. I was there, as a “rookie” and I didn’t have any ambition except to beat my PB and gather experience. London was a totally different thing; we were among the favorites and had high ambitions, so that was another approach… these Olympics were much more stressful. Despite the pressure I really enjoyed it and even though we wanted better results, I gained a lot from this incredible experience. It gives me a perfect background for the next one!”

(Kevin): “I learned a lot about myself as an athlete. I had experienced the Games 4 years ago in Beijing, but it was completely different. Beijing was my first senior competition and I just wanted to compete, perform at my best and learn. Here in London I set big goals, I was ambitious. So of course at these Olympics I had to deal with a lot of stress, but this is what professional sport is about, and I gained a lot from it. In a whole, London was an amazing experience…” With that in mind their goals for this season are identical: “Do better than London.”

For Jonathon there is a sense that whilst general improvement is important, beating his brother is always in the back of his mind, despite holding the national record: “I remind him that he’d better enjoy it now because him beating me in international competitions won’t last.” Kevin on the other hand perhaps unsurprisingly has no focus on taking Jonathan’s record: “I don’t think about that, I just think about training hard and improving myself.”

What can only be expected from the pair, is that if improvement is made by both, the status quo of dominance will continue to swing on a pendulum that will see the family and Belgium reaping the rewards.


Alex Mills

I am a junior sports journalist just starting out, with the aim of having an impact on the running World. In my blog pieces I will be reporting the facts and the figures with my own opinionated twist. My views come from a reasonable level experience having run since my early years and competed regionally, however like all aspiring runners or journalists I love talking to those above me in the rostrum, to get an insight into their lives and experiences. In order to help educate myself and the readers of the changes and sacrifices I would need to make to one day reach that level.