Ivo Van Damme, the top 800m specialist in the history of Belgian athletics, continues to have a presence among us. Although with us only in thought, he is celebrated annually in one of the biggest track & field meets in Europe: The Memorial Van Damme. A beloved athlete who died much too young, Ivo was - and continues to be - special to Belgian athletics, not only because of his accomplishments on the track, but also because of his human qualities. Therefore, we present this retrospective look at Ivo Van Damme - the athlete and the man.
Ivo Van Damme was born in Louvain, near Brussels, on 21. February 1954. Early in his childhood, Ivo gravitated towards sports, first playing soccer in the colors of Racing White. His father described Ivo's soccer talent as 'much speed, but no technique' and Ivo soon found a preference for athletics.
At age 15, Ivo was timed in 4:29.6 for 1500m in a school competition. He joined the athletics club "Daring Louvain" and initially was thought of as a 1500m and 3000m runner. However, at age 17 he discovered the 800 meters to be his favorite event and his first attempt at the distance produced a 2:07.2. A few months later, he improved that time by 5 seconds, becoming the best "Scholier" 800m runner of his club. History was about to begin …
The big breakthrough came in 1973 at the European Junior Championships. Van Damme finished 4th in the 800m with a time of 1:48.16, a new Belgian junior record. 1974 was as disappointing as 1973 was successful. For the first and only time in his career, Ivo had to drop out of a competition not feeling well, and he was subsequently diagnosed with mononucleosis. With the illness lingering for several months, his competitive season was over.
Van Damme was confident in his athletic abilities, and once healthy, he returned to competition in strong fashion. In 1975, he earned the 800m silver medal at the European Indoor Championships in Katowice; then on 20. August that same year in Zurich, Ivo's 1:45.31 erased Roger Moens' 20-year-old Belgian 800m record (and then world record) of 1:45.7. He followed up with the 800m gold medal at the '76 European Indoor Championships in Munich.
Ivo was an exceptional person, not only with respect to his athletic talent, but also by his character. Those who knew him well, dubbed him "an iron hand in a velvet glove"… While Belgians sarcastically characterize themselves as being content with second place, Ivo's only objective was to be n° 1. To succeed, he was prepared to make all the necessary sacrifices. He was called a "beast" in workouts - including being obsessed with the stopwatch - a key factor in his dazzling progression from season to season.
Ivo had tremendous confidence in himself and his physical abilities, which sometimes could pass for arrogance. In competition, Ivo was all business and gave away no gifts. While a true sportsman, he was known outside the athletic arena as sociable, friendly, and never shy of relating a joke or two. Ivo was in fact endowed with exceptional charisma and was a pioneer among athletes understanding the importance of public relations. One way Ivo took care of his "brand" was by sending post cards to athletics journalists while he was training abroad.
In the summer of 1976, Van Damme knew he had prepared as well as he possibly could for the Olympic Games. On 9. July in Zurich, he ran 3:36.26 for 1500m to establish a Belgian record that - like Moens' 800 record - would stand for 20 years (Christophe Impens 3:35.72 - 1996). Before Ivo departed for Montréal, he declared to the press: "To beat me (in the 800m), will take a world record."
And so it went, with Ivo on 25. July winning the silver medal in the 800m (in a new Belgian record 1:43.86) behind the world record performance of Alberto Juantorena (1:43.50). Just days later, Ivo won the silver medal in the 1500m in a very close finish with John Walker (3:39.17 to 3:39.27). Ivo received a hero's welcome upon his return from Canada, but he immediately pronounced that there would be better things to come at the next Olympic Games… Van Damme proceeded to close out the '76 season with two more world-class performances in the 800m, proving his sensational feat in Montreal was no fluke: 1:44.02 in Zurich on 18. August and 1:44.09 in Cologne on 1. September. It goes without saying that Van Damme was named "1976 Belgian sportsman of the year."
Ivo tragically lost his life in an automobile accident during his return from a training camp in southern France just before Christmas 1976. Within a year, a group of Belgian sports journalists conceived the Memorial Van Damme, to pay tribute to Ivo Van Damme - the athlete and the man.