After Ivo Van Damme earned Olympic silver medals in the 800 and 1,500 meters at Montreal, Robert Moens, the Olympic 800 runner-up in 1960, was asked if the Belgian team had expected such a brilliant performance from the 22-year-old Van Damme.
"Oh, yes. We knew he was very good," Moens replied.
That statement might well stand as Van Damme's epitaph. The Belgian's career, so bright with promise, was extinguished Wednesday when he died in an automobile crash in France.
We will never know how good the bearded, curly-haired Van Damme could have been. But his Montreal efforts indicate that at his rate of improvement he was not far from world-record acquisitions.
In the 800 in Montreal, Van Damme ran away from favored Rick Wohluhuter in the stretch and clocked 1:43.9, matching history's fifth-fastest time. But four yards in front, Cuba's Alberto Juantorena was winning in a world-record 1:43.5.
In the 1,500, Van Damme's runner-up status, although only one-tenth of a second from victory, was again largely overlooked, because the winner was New Zealand's charismatic John Walker.
Van Damme, who spoke fluent English, was scheduled to make his first appearance on the American indoor tour this winter, racing in Los Angeles Jan. 15 and remaining through the AAU meet in New York Feb. 25. Like that other free spirit who died so young, Steve Prefontaine, Van Damme will be missed by track buffs everywhere.
The 500-yard run figures to be the outstanding event in the National Invitational meet at Cole Field House Jan. 14. The race will be divided into two sections, but meet director Bob Comstock indicated one segment will include Edwin Moses, Fred Newhouse, Herman Frazier and Stan Vinson.
Moses is the Olympic champion and world record-holder in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles. Newhouse and Frazier finished two-three in the Olympic 400 behind Juantorena. Vinson, eliminated by three-hundredths of a second in the Olympic Trials semi-finals, is on a revenge trip and already has been clocked at 45.4 for a 400-meter relay leg on the old, undersized track at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The indoor 400-meter record is 45.9, set by Belgium's Fons Brydenbach.
Vinson, who competed for the Florida Track Club last year, has switched his allegiance to the D.C. Striders, and with teammates like Fred Sowerby, Dennis Walker and Billy Hicks, that group figures to dominate the mile-relay circuit. The Striders won the 1,600-meter event in Saskatoon in 3:16.2.
The mile is another loaded event in the competition at Cole. Defending champion Eamonn Coghlan of Ireland, fourth in the Montreal 1,500, is matched against West Germany's Thomas Wessinghage, whose 3:34.6 time for the 1,500 was bettered only by Walker last year; U.S. Olympian Mike Durkin, Vittorio Fontanella of Italy, Don Paige of Villanova and Tom Byers of Ohio State.
The pole-vault field includes six men who have cleared 18 feet. Their goal is Dan Ripley, one of the more publicized failures of the Olympic Trials, is among the entries. He cleared 17-6 for first place at Saskatoon.
Robin Campbell, her Olympic bid ruined by a stress fracture, will attempt a double in the women's 400 and 880. Olympian Sheila Ingram will confine her efforts to the 60. Olympic high-jumper Paula Gifven, after her 6-foot effort won in Saskatoon, will meet tougher competition in Joni Huntley and Andrea Bruce.
Walker, whose indoor tour was wiped out last year by an achilles tendon problem, is not certain to run this winter, either. Scheduled to compete in Los Angeles Feb. 19, Walker has been slow to resume training following an operation for appendicitis Oct. 16.
Adrian Paulen of Holland, president of the International Amateur Athletics Federation, will attend the meet at Cole Field House and will hold a press conference here Jan. 13. The idea is to provide a splashy opening for the track season, which concludes with the first World Cup meet for men and women at Dusseldorf, West Germany, Sept. 2-4.
The United States will be one of eight teams in the World Cup. Another team will represent the rest of the Americas, three will be selected in Europe and others will come from Africa, Asia and Oceania. Each team will have one contestant, with events scored on a 9-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.
Debra Sapenter, Olympic 1,600-relay silver medalist and women's track coach at Northwestern University, will discuss training of 400-meter runners at the Scholastic Coach-U.S. Marine Corps Track and Field Clinic at College Park, Jan. 14-16.
Other lecturers include Oregon coach Bill Dellinger, Virginia coach Dennis Craddock, Auburn coach Mel Rosen, pole vaulter Buddy Williamson, discus thrower Dick Drescher, Middle Tennessee coach Dean Hayes and Nick Kovalakides, intramural sports director at Maryland and also coordinator of the clinic. Tuition is $30 in advance, $35 at the door.