Friday, August 01, 2008
Olympic Hero: Ivo Van Damme
With just seven days to go before the start of the 29th Olympic Games, here's my Observer article on my all-time Olympic hero, the great Belgian runner Ivo Van Damme.
Who are your Olympic heroes?
If one day this magazine were to publish a list of the 10 most heroic runner-ups in sporting history, Crisp's gallant weight-carrying performance in the 1973 Grand National, Greasepaint's two defeats in the same race a decade later and Queens Park Rangers' heartbreaking failure to win the 1976 Division One title would figure prominently. But top of the pile, I hope, would be the remarkable performance of a 22-year-old Belgian athlete at the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal.
Ivo van Damme arrived in Canada with a sporting chance in 800 and 1500 metres. He failed by a narrow margin to return home with two golds, but made a huge impact on a certain 10-year-old watching on television, thousands of miles away in the Midlands.
It wasn't just the narrow nature of his defeats; there was something about van Damme himself that was so different from the other competitors. For a start, he had a beard. For athletes – and indeed all sports stars – long hair was almost compulsory in the mid-1970s. Beards, however, most certainly were not. There was, too, the question of his nationality: being Belgian is not always a plus point but to a devotee of Tintin and Hercule Poirot it most definitely was.
In that long hot summer of 1976, the bearded Belgian became my hero. I had no doubt, that four years hence, at the Moscow Games (to which my uncle ambitiously planned to take all his nephews and nieces in his Bedford van), van Damme would emulate Kornelia Ender, the East German swimmer who had turned her Munich silvers into Montreal golds. It was not to be. Just five months after the Olympics, van Damme was killed in a head-on collision, on the autoroute between Marseille and Lyon, on his way home from a training session in the south of France. His death, at the age of 22, ensured he would always be the great lost talent of modern athletics.
Ivo van Damme was born in Brussels on 21 February 1954, the son of a policeman. He turned to athletics late, aged 17. His first sport was football, which he hoped to play as a professional. A fractured arm and a family move to the small town of Veltem, in Flemish Brabant, changed all that. Van Damme joined his first running club, Daring club of Leuven, and athletics became his passion. At first he specialised in the 1,500m and 3,000m. His breakthrough came when he dropped back to 800m. The first time he ran the distance he clocked 2:07.20; a few months later he bettered that by five seconds. In his first major international competition, the 1973European Junior Championships in Duisburg, he finished fourth behind Steve Ovett. In 1974, his progress was checked through injury, but in 1975 he finished second in the European Indoor Championships in Berne, breaking Roger Moens's national record. With characteristic courtesy, van Damme waited for his compatriot to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his achievement, before replacing his name in the record books.
After winning the same competition in February 1976, van Damme was set for the 21st Olympiad. Favourite for the 800m was the American Richard Wohlhuter. He was a silver medallist at Munich and runner of the fastest time that year. The Cuban Alberto Juantorena, the red-hot favourite for the 400m, which he duly won, was considered something of an unknown quantity at the longer distance, despite having recorded the second-fastest time of 1976. In the final, Juantorena led for most of the way, winning in 1:43.50, a new world record, with van Damme staying on strongly in second, in 1:43.86, the third-fastest time ever. It was a tremendous performance against an opponent in the form of his life. More than a second and a half behind van Damme, in fifth, was a young Steve Ovett, destined to win 800m gold in Moscow.
In the 1,500m final, a week later, van Damme was up against the 'Flying Kiwi', John Walker, who a year earlier had become the first man to run a mile in under 3:50.00. With the first 400m run in a funereal 62.48 seconds and the 800m in 2:03.15, van Damme, the 800m specialist, must have felt his confidence growing. He was perfectly positioned when he became boxed in by the Australian Graham Crouch. By the time he had manoeuvred himself free, Walker had made his dash. Van Damme flew, but the effort cost him in the stretch and the New Zealander held on by a metre. Van Damme returned home a national hero, but he was not satisfied. He promised he would bring back two golds from Moscow.
It was an Olympics he was fated never to see.
How great could Ivo van Damme have been? The African nations' boycott deprived the 1976 800m final of the talented Kenyan Mike Boit. The 1,500m was similarly devalued by the absence of world-record holder Filbert Bayi of Tanzania and Walker's winning time was the slowest since 1956. Even so, had van Damme continued to improve – and there's no reason why he shouldn't have – one can assume that he would have been hitting the 1:42 mark for 800m by the 1978 outdoor European Championships, a time that would have won him the title. By 1980 (when he would still have been only 26 – Juantorena's age in Montreal), van Damme could have been established as the undisputed middle-distance champion of the world. The Coe-Ovett led renaissance of British athletics may well have had a very different ending.
Van Damme is commemorated in the name of the annual international meeting in Brussels, which has become the scene of several record-breaking performances. This is a fitting tribute to a man who appeared to have time on his side but who ran out of that most precious commodity far too soon.