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In the mid-70's, America's track & field community lost Steve Prefontaine - a beloved and fearless runner who had captured the imagination of those who love the sport.  The Olympian died far too young, the victim of an tragic car accident which took his life well before his time.  The nation in general - and track & field fans in particular - mourned his premature passing.  His reputation in death - perhaps surpassing his reputation in life - has been burnished over nearly forty years.  His accomplishments have continued to inspire future generations of American track hopefuls.  And to this day he is revered as a competitor almost without peer.  His homeland hosts a Diamond League meet - arguably the best one day gathering in the nation - which is named in his honor.

But the United States is not the only country which has endured this type of shocking, untimely loss and somehow found a way to enshrine the memory of its champion for future generations.

Belgium has as well.  And the similarities between the abbreviated careers of Steve Prefontaine and Belgium middle distance star Ivo Van Damme, the events surrounding their deaths, and how their respective countries and fan bases responded to their loss are eerie indeed.

Van Damme's ascension as a world class middle distance runner began after the '72 Olympic Games.  His 1:48.16 4th place finish in the 800m final in the '73 European Junior championships garnered attention. And in 1975 when Van Damme clocked 1:45.31 to erase Roger Moen's 20 year old Belgian 800m record of 1:45.7, the young athlete began to earn broad recognition as a potential Olympic medalist.  Van Damme rode that momentum into the Olympic year, setting a new Belgian national mark in the 1500m of 3:36.26 in the summer of '76.  The record would stand for 20 years.

Brimming with confidence that summer, Van Damme - scheduled for an 800m/1500m Olympic double - headed to the '76 Montreal Games after announcing, "To beat me (in the 800m) will take a world record."  His declaration proved prophetic.

In '76 Olympic 800m final, Alberto Juantorena proved just too strong.  El Caballo - who later would go on the win the 400m gold medal as well - powered his way to an Olympic 800m victory.  The Cuban's winning time of 1:43.50 set a new world record as Van Damme captured the silver and set a new Belgian national standard with a 1:43.86 clocking - the third fastest 800m time ever.  Several days later, Van Damme found himself in the 1500m final against a stacked field that included mile world record holder John Walker - the first man to break 3:50 in the mile.  The strategic early pace favored the Belgian 800m specialist.  But a mid-race box in the bunched field impeded Van Damme and allowed the crafty Walker to get away early in his drive for the line.  After finally escaping the congestion, Van Damme's stretch run can up just a little short as the Kiwi's winning time of 3:39.17 held off the second place Van Damme by .10 seconds.

The 22-year old Belgian returned home with two Olympic silver medals after having been nipped by two of the greatest middle distance racers of all time.  And just as Prefontaine's courageous final lap in Munich 5000m final which just missed a medal prompted hopeful speculation that the American would be on the podium at the next Olympics, similar hope arose that Van Damme could capture gold in Moscow.  The youthful Belgian medalist didn't downplay such thinking, stating that better things would come in the next Olympic Games.  Van Damme's future looked bright indeed.

But an automobile accident would change all of that.  Just as Pre's fatal one-car crash in late May of 1975 denied him another Olympic appearance, Van Damme - driving home from a training facility in southern France - was involved in an horrific head-on collision right before Christmas, 1976, taking his life and extinguishing his dream of future Olympic glory.

Like Prefontaine, Van Damme is revered in his homeland.  The Memorial Van Damme - the concluding and perhaps one of the most celebrated gatherings of the annual Diamond League series - is dedicated to his memory.  Pre-meet festivities in Brussels' King Baudouin Stadium - complete with marquee performers encircling the track on the back of convertibles - include solemn recognition of the Belgian middle distance star's accomplishments and his untimely demise.  As is the case with Pre in America, Van Damme's legacy continues to this day to inspire an entirely new generation of Belgium athletes such as sprinter Kim Gavaert, '08 Olympic high jump champion Tia Hellebaut, and the Borlee siblings.

Nearly four decades ago, both the United States and Belgium were stunned when each lost one of their most colorful and accomplished track & field heroes.  Yet through it all, both nations found strikingly similar ways to celebrate the life of their fallen star.  And in the end, the Prefontaine Classic, the Memorial Van Damme, and the accomplishments of the track & field performers Prefontaine and Van Damme continue to inspire may be the most fitting tribute to these two great athletes. 

 

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TAFWA Award

Dunaway AwardAt the 2019 annual meeting of the Track and Field Writers of America, Dave was presented with the James Dunaway Memorial Award “for track & field journalism excellence.”

Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.

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