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A football field the size of Belgium

20 October 2010
by Patrick Love

Did you know that if you spread all your skin evenly over a flat surface you’d die? Fifty percent of our readers thought I was going to say it would cover an area the size of Belgium. (The other one’s gone to look for a knife, since you ask.) What is it about this “highly improbable” country that’s made it the standard international measurement for death and destruction, as in “an area of rain forest the size of Belgium has disappeared”?

You’d think that given its popularity, the measure would be standardised, with 1 Bm = 1000 millibelges, but in fact the  correct subdivision is football fields. These are used for a range of difficult measurements such as the length of oil tankers at sea, but really come into their own when scientists need a particularly precise metric for the size of sophisticated equipment like the UK’s Diamond Light Source Synchrotron.

So, how many football fields are there in a Belgium? I’ve no idea. And I haven’t a clue how big Belgium is. Even in Brussels, I’m sure few people could tell you the size of the place. Yet you see this “statistic” practically nobody could define used worldwide. Does that matter? Probably not. In fact it can be quite useful.

As Belgian writer Paul de Man said, metaphors are much more tenacious than facts. Belgium is a country most people have heard of, even if they couldn’t locate it on a map, and anything that’s as big as a country must be really big. Likewise, most of us are exhausted by the time we run the length of a football field, so it must be really long.    

The (average) statistician is now apoplectic. Comparing this kind of garbage to real statistics just because they both claim to measure something is like comparing coal to diamonds just because they’re both made of that stuff they’re both made of. They’ve got a point. A striking image is fine to draw attention to something, but for practical purposes, you need precise, comparable data. The OECD has over 200 statisticians supplying its 200 committees and working groups with over 200 indicators on all areas of government action.

To celebrate World Statistics Day, why not take a look at our statistics portal on the OECD iLibrary? You’ll find the expected and the unexpected: data economic growth of course, but even which OECD country has the tallest population. I still couldn’t find the area of Belgium though.

Useful links

OECD Statistics Directorate

4 Responses leave one →
  1. October 20, 2010

    Hello there,

    Thanks for your great item dedicated to our country, where i would like to set first of all the “Magritte” idea: “this is not Belgium”.
    We know all that our country is 30.528 km2 and is also very fund of football, yes not only Great Britain or Brazil…

    As we know that Belgium has 589 municipalities, you can be shure that every place here has at least 1 football field. So your idea of statistics with a “football field” as standard is just great when you know this:
    Organization / Width / Length
    FIFA standard(common) / 45 – 75 m / 90 – 120 m
    FIFA (international) / 64 – 75 m / 100 – 110 m
    UEFA (CL-groupcompetition)/ 68 m / 105 m

    With other words… this standard just want say nothing. In fact, in common 1 hectare is compared to 2 footballfields or 1,4 UEFA-footballfields. The idea is not “garbage”, but “Magritte”… can you still follow? No?

    Finally, my conclusion comes from the delicious “Asterix and Obelix” comics : “They are crazy these Belgians!”, well… in fact… we are not the only one’s…

    Erik Dereymaeker

  2. kid tung permalink
    October 20, 2010

    The size of Belgium? Anyone who had a decent geography class in school would know (unlike most Belgians): roughly 30.500 km². So, a statistician will tell you that’s about 4.271.709 football fields, but common sense will tell you that there’s only one football field in Belgium: Sclessin. All the other teams are just wasting their time and may as well give up their fields to cows! And that’s not a statistic, that’s a fact 😉

    • Patrick Love permalink*
      October 20, 2010

      This poses a policy dilemma for the OECD: no problem approving a Standard we’ve got loads of them ourselves, but I can’t see us supporting “The Reds”.

  3. freddie permalink
    December 10, 2010

    facebook group about Belgium as a unit of measurement

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