Celebrating an incredible life
The Memorial Van Damme has become a central fixture on the world athletics calendar and Belgium's most well-known sporting event. It's all in homage to a brilliant life with a tragic end.
On 25 August, the world’s greatest track and field athletes will come together at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels to prove their worth.
The poster for this year's Memorial Van Damme
Born on 21 February 1954 in a village close to Leuven and at first an avid football player, at the age of 16 Van Damme turned to athletics and in particular the 1,500 and 3,000m disciplines.
But soon he would discover the 800m and in 1971, he clocked 2:07.20 the first time he attempted the distance. Within a few months, he would improve his time by five seconds and begin his historic rise to fame.
He finished fourth in a new Belgian record behind Steve Ovett at the 1973 European Junior Championships in Duisburg, but illness intervened in 1974 and Belgian media quickly gave up on the young athlete.
But in 1975, Van Damme came back to claim silver at the European Indoor Championships in Katowice, breaking Roger Moens’ national record.
Later that year, he ran the minimum Olympic time and broke the world record at the European Championship in Munich.
His best performances were still to come, however, and in 1976, at the age of 22, Van Damme took part in the Montreal Olympics, where he won silver medals in both the 800 and 1,500m.
He got a hero's welcome upon his return and was named Belgian sportsman of the year, but always the perfectionist, Van Damme was disappointed he didn’t bring back the gold and promised to do so at the 1980 Olympics.
But fate was to step in when, just a few weeks later, he was killed in a car accident on his way back from a training centre in the south of France.
It was to render homage to Van Damme’s short, but brilliant career that a group of sports journalists organised the first Van Damme Memorial in August 1977.
The Heysel Stadium (since renamed King Baudouin) was host to 40,000 spectators and elite athletes from across the world.
The event continued to be a success through the years with names such as Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Edwin Moses, Carl Louis and Heike Drechsler giving their best in Brussels.
In 1981, Coe broke the one-mile record in Brussels (3:48.53) and in 1995 Mozambique runner Maria Mutola broke the world record for 1,000m (2:29.34).
In 1997, Kenya's Daniel Komen set a world 5,000m record on the memorial track. And one hour after Komen's lap of victory, compatriot Paul Tergat shaved three seconds off Haile Gebrselassie's 10,000m record.
In 1998, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) unified the most prestigious athletic meetings to create the Golden League that includes, as well as Memorial Van Damme, the meetings of Oslo, Paris, Rome, Zurich and Berlin.
The athletes that win their discipline at the six meetings can claim a share of the jackpot which, which is USD 1 million this year.
In 2005 and in front of a sell-out crowd of 46,159, Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele broke the world 10,000m, recording a time of 26:17.53, some three seconds faster than his previous record.
New record attempt
This year, the 30th Memorial Van Damme will see an attempt made to break the 4x800m record.
It will take place 50 years after the Belgian team of Roger Moens, André Ballieux, Alfred Langenus and Emile Leva broke the world record on 8 August 1956.
The Belgian record of 7:15.8 was broken by a British team consisting of Peter Elliott, Gary Cook and the legendary duo Steve Cram and Sebastian Coe in 1982.
To break the long-standing record, the four runners in Brussels will need to run on average times under 1:46.
Organisers are looking towards teams from Kenya, France and Qatar and a combined Benelux team to eclipse the standing British record.
For the past three months, a tram covered in photos of top athletes who starred at previous events has been making its way around Brussels to promote the anniversary edition of the event.
The tram has been traveling on line 81 which starts at the King Baudouin Stadium and passes through the entire city on Brussels' longest tram line.
And in the lead-up to the event, tickets have been selling fast. They are now only available by phone on 02 478 20 25.
So act fast if you wish to experience this year's Memorial Van Damme as it promises to be as special as the others with a winning atmosphere which track and field fans return to year after year.
It is held in the spirit of celebration in memory of an incredible man's career.
For more information on the Van Damme Memorial athletics meet (25 August 2006) visit http://www.sport.be/memorialvandamme/2006/eng/
Updated 11 August 2006
[Copyright Expatica 2006]
Subject: Memorial Van Damme