The Memorial Van DammeIAAF Golden League - meeting celebrates its 30th anniversary this Friday 25 August 2006, and to mark this special occasion Diego Sampaolo delves back into the illustrious history of this athletics legend...
The proud history of the Memorial Van Damme meeting in Brussels, one of the most popular sporting events in Belgium, began in August 1977, some months after the untimely death of Ivo Van Damme, who lost his life in a tragic car accident in southern France in December 1976 at the age of 22. Just a few months earlier the Belgian star had produced the most remarkable achievement of his short athletics career: double Olympic silver in the 800 and 1500 metres in Montreal.
Early on, highlights from Walker and Coe
It is not a surprise that one of Van Damme’s rivals in Montreal, John Walker from New Zealand, who beat the Belgian to gold in the 1500m, honoured the memory of Van Damme in the inaugural edition of the meeting in 1977. In the race he narrowly missed Filbert Bayi’s World record clocking of 3:32.7.
Sebastian Coe opened the era of British middle distance dominance in Brussels by winning the 800m in 1:43.3 in 1978. Steve Ovett narrowly missed Coe’s 1500m World record the following year by running in 3:32.2, just a few days after Coe ran a World record 3:32.1 in Zürich.
The first World record set at the Heysel stadium came in 1981 thanks to Coe who stripped Ovett of the World Mile record, clocking 3:47.33.
Mennea follows up Olympic triumph
The 1980 edition featured a rerun of the Olympic Games in Moscow. The US stars, who did not compete in the Russian capital due to boycott of Western countries, used Brussels as a venue to show what could have been. But it was a fresh Olympic gold medallist from Moscow who stole the limelight. Italian sprinter Pietro Mennea followed up his Moscow 200 metres win with another convincing half-lap victory in 20.05, an impressive time on a cool evening.
1984 - Steeplechase tradition begins
Another Olympic legend to highlight the Van Damme was Carl Lewis who leapt to 8.65 in the Long jump in his post-Olympic campaign, to follow up his quadruple Gold medal performance from the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
But the highlight of the 1984 edition came with the 3000 metres Steeplechase European record set by Frenchman Joseph Mahmoud, who clocked 8:07.62. That was not the Steeplechase continental record set in Brussels. Last year Holland’s 35-year-old Simon Vroemen, who was originally designed to act as a pacemaker, improved the European record to 8:04.95 in the wake of Saif Saaeed Shaheen’s 7:55.51 world leading mark for 2005.
Michael Johnson was one of the most successful sprinters in Van Damme history. The star from Waco, multiple World and Olympic champion and World record holder in the 200 and the 400 metres, clinched his first Brussels win in 1990. One year later he ran an impressive 19.89, which came shortly after his first 200m World title in Tokyo. Johnson collected a total of nine wins in the Belgian capital, four in the 200 metres and five in the 400 metres.
Merlene Ottey ran the fastest 200 metres race of her long career at the Van Damme in 1991 when she clocked the second fastest time in history with 21.64.
Colin Jackson highlighted the 1993 meeting with a sub-13 seconds performance in the 110 metre Hurdles, clocking 12.99 some weeks after his 12.91 World record at the World Championships in Stuttgart. Allen Johnson improved this meeting record to 12.92 in 1996, equalling the U.S. record.
World record holder Mike Powell won the men’s Long Jump six times between 1987 and 1994, topped by a best mark of 8.58 in 1994.
Mutola, Masterkova, 1000m World records
The second World record in the history of the Brussels meeting came in 1995, fourteen years after Coe’s mile record, the first year the competition was held in a refurbished Heysel stadium which was renamed Roi Baudouin Stadium. It was Maria Mutola who made history, clocking 2:29.34 in the 1000 metres, before a capacity crowd of 47,000 enthusiastic spectators, who have since been thrilled annually by the rhythm of Burundian drummers during middle and long distance races.
Mutola’s World record was improved only one year later by the freshly-minted 800/1500 double Olympic champion Svetlana Masterkova from Russia, who lowered the mark to 2:28.98 in 1996. But that was not the only record set that evening. Morocco’s Salah Hissou set the 10,000 metres World record on the Brussels track with his 26:38.08. The fabulous 1996 meeting was also highlighted by Wilson Kipketer’s 1:42.77 in the 800, Frankie Fredericks’ 19.92 in the 200m and Daniel Komen’s 7:25.87 in the 3000.
Gebrselassie watches a pair of World records fall
Two more World records came in 1997. Haile Gebrselassie ran a notable 7:26.02 in the 3000 metres but in the same night he lost two World records which he had set earlier that season to two of his fiercest Kenyan rivals. Daniel Komen lowered the Ethiopian’s week old record in the 5000m when he became the first man in history to dip under 12:40 with his 12:39.74 performance. Then it was the turn of Paul Tergat to strip Gebreselassie of his 10,000m World record, with the Kenyan running a remarkable 26:27.85.
Brussels has become synonymous with fast performances in the longest standard track race. In 1999 the little-known Charles Kamathi revealed his potential by winning the 10,000m in 26:51.49, and in 2000, Morroco's Brahim Lahlafi won the 5000m in 12:49.28. Moroccan born Belgian Mohammed Mouhrit respectively set European records 26:52.30 and 12:49.71 behind those wins.
El G’s dominance
Hicham El Guerrouj won his first Brussels middle distance race in 1996, a feat he repeated seven more time between 1996 and 2003. In 1999 the now-retired Moroccan star ran the second fastest time in history in the 3000 metres, 7:23.09. An epic battle took place in 2001 when El Guerrouj narrowly beat Bernard Lagat in 3:26.12, just 12/100s of a second off his own World record. Lagat ran an impressive 3:26.34, still a lifetime best. In 2003, El Guerrouj edged his French rival Mehdi Baala in 3:28.40 while the Frenchman narrowly missed Firmin Cacho’s European record by just 3/100s of a second in 3:28.98.
Middle distance running fans will always remember 800 metres races, another “must” of the Brussels meeting. In 1999 Wilson Kipketer won in 1:42.27, leading three others under 1:43. In 2001 Yuriy Borzakovski was the only man able to beat Switzerland’s Andrè Bucher that year, 1:42.47 to 1:42.75. In 2003, Kenyan Wilfried Bungei produced a world leading 1:42.52.
Sprint races were marked by feats of American Marion Jones, who won in Brussels for the first time in 1997 in 10.76, beating Ottey, and went on to collect four more 100 metres victories in 1998, 2000, 2001 and 2002. More recent men’s 100 metre races were won by Frankie Fredericks, the 1997 winner in 9.90, and twice by 2000 Olympic champion Maurice Greene, who clocked 9.94 in 1998 and 9.88 in 2000. In 2004, Jamaican Asafa Powell took the win in 9.87.
Steeplechase tradition continues
The 25th edition in 2001 was a fabulous night highlighted by Moroccan Brahim Boulami’s 7:55.28 World record in the steeplechase, in a race which also featured a World junior record by Kenyan Stephen Cherono, a man who would later rewrite the history of the discipline as Saif Saaeed Shaheen.
Shaheen made up for the disappointment of missing the 2004 Olympic Games by setting a World record of 7:53.63 in 2004. That same year, Brussels featured another World record courtesy of Russian Pole Vault star Yelena Isinbayeva who cleared 4.92, one centimetre better than the World record she had set at the Athens Olympics.
Brussels was also the venue where the $1 million dream of 800 metre legend Maria Mutola came true. In 2003 the “Maputo Express” became the first athlete in history to claim the entire IAAF Golden League Million Dollar Jackpot, a feat since equalled by Russian triple jumper Tatyana Lebedeva in 2005.
Another World record came last year, bringing the total to ten. Helped by his younger brother Tariku, Kenenisa Bekele smashed his own record in the 10,000m with a 26:17.53 clocking, in a race where six men dipped under 27 minutes, including a World junior record by Kenyan Samuel Wanjiru, whose 26:41.75 improved the 27:04.00 by Uganda’s Boniface Kiprop’s set on the same the year before.
Adding to Ethiopian celebration last year was Olympic champion Meseret Defar, who lowered the then African record in the 5000 metres to 14:28.98.
Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF