Gaston Roelants, a onetime police lieutenant who is now a public-relations man for Belgium's largest wine and liquor dealer, is a small, neat man with a carefully trimmed mustache. He has bright blue eyes, dark auburn hair trimmed in an English crew cut and almost foxlike ears. His hands and feet are large, his legs exceptionally long, and he possesses what is almost certainly the best cardiovascular system in his small country. He was, he thinks, born to go fast. He grew the mustache to nourish a considerable vanity and he developed the cardiovascular system by running through the lovely beech and oak forest of Zoete Waters, a hamlet on the outskirts of Louvain, where he lives.
Roelants is the world-record holder and the Olympic champion in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, that strange race in which the runner must clear four hurdles and a water jump on each of seven laps, and which may well be the most punishing single event in track and field competition. He is Flemish and, like most Flemings, he is industrious and disciplined. But even more than most Flemings—or any other people, except for the dedicated fraternity to which he belongs, that of the distance runner—he has an astounding capacity for long, painful hours of work.
Although he is 30 years old, Roelants feels that he is only now reaching his peak and that he will be able to run well for another five or six years. "I think it each year," he said not long ago, sitting in his office in Brussels. "The running I have done, it makes easier then the running I am to do. Each year it is that I am stronger, you see."
He broke off to answer his phone, then discussed the call in quick Flemish with Paul Hennekens, who is the Directeur Sportif of Etablissements Fourcroy, his employer. Roelants sits across a wide desk from Hennekens in a spacious office, and his principal function as the public-relations man for the concern is to attend banquets and cocktail parties for visiting sports celebrities. This call was a request for his presence at a club cocktail party, and he and Hennekens decided that he should go.
July 16, 1967
"I am sorry," he said when the interruption was over, "but I have to work, too, isn't it? Anyway, all this training is what you must pay for what you get. Me, I started late. I was 17, but here in Belgium we start running when we are 12. My father is a farmer near Leuven [the Flemish name for Louvain] and he did not like for me the life of the sportsman. I was first interested in the bicycling, but he say no, Gaston, you cannot do that. So I started running, but I could not let my father and mother know."
At this moment Hennekens flipped a letter across to Roelants, which he scanned quickly. It was another request for an appearance and he nodded.
"Later, when I began to make good results," he said, "then my parents like it very much and my father was very strict with me. He say, 'Gaston, if you wish to do something very well, you work very hard and sacrifice.' He was shake finger at me when he say this."
Mimicking his father, Roelants painted a vivid picture of a stern Belgian farmer admonishing a small son.
"So, I was not go out," he went on. "Is that how you say it? I was stay in the house at nights and no go out with the girls until I am 21 years old. All I do is work and go to school and run, but now it is worth it."
It was after noon by now and Roelants stood up.
"Now we go to Leuven to eat," he said. "But first I show you the business."
He conducted a quick tour of the vast Fourcroy warehouse, piled to the ceiling with the wines and liquors the firm imports. All of the workmen knew him and he stopped to chat with some of them.
He drives a small Ford Taunus as if it were a Grand Prix car, and the 15-mile trip to Louvain was a harrowing one. The highways are three-lane, so that driving is a continuous game of chicken in the middle lane. It is a game Roelants plays with obvious enjoyment and one his unnerved passengers wish he would drop.
Along the way Roelants honked and waved at half the people he saw, and all of them smiled and waved back. He is easily one of the best-known men in Belgium, a country that cherishes what few sports heroes it has had. Despite the constantly recurring threat of head-on collision and the rather whimsical signaling of other drivers on the narrow road, Roelants was relaxed and talkative and prone to fix his passenger with his eye as he talked.
"I was good runner from the beginning," he said. Modesty is not one of his virtues. "Always good at distance because I am not fast. My best time for 400 meters is maybe 55 seconds. I have win club championships before and even in first club race I ever run. My first year in junior cross-country in 1955 I am finish fifth. Then third in 1956." In 1958, running in the senior championships for the first time, he finished 11th, but he had been handicapped by a sore throat. He won in 1959, and has not been beaten in the race since.
Roelants did not begin running the steeplechase until 1957. "I have friend who runs steeplechase," he said. "He run only 10 minutes. I laugh and say I can run faster than that and I have never done before. So my first race I run in 9:57 and beat him and am first. Then I run 9:37, then 9:26, and by end of year I make a good result of 9:16. In 1958, in Copenhagen, I make a Belgian record of 8:56.8. Since then I have break that record, I don't know, maybe 15 time."
He had arrived in Louvain by now, and he parked his car on the narrow street where he has a sports shop named, for obvious reasons, the Olympia. He put a small press card for a new Belgian magazine called Sport 67 against the windshield (an accomplished photographer, Roelants occasionally writes articles or takes pictures for the magazine) and said, "It is not that the police see 'Press' and not worry about where I am park. It is that they will see the card and say, 'Oh, it is Gaston, so that is all right.' "
An English photographer, a trifle pale from having driven another car close behind Roelants all the way from Brussels, joined him, and Roelants smiled at him. "This is slowest I have ever drive," he said, shaking his head.
For lunch he ordered chicken, a salad and french-fried potatoes. "Mostly I eat steak and—how you say?—vegetable? Green vegetable," he said. "Only on Monday do I allow myself the chicken and potato and then no bread."
He had one glass of Das Bier with his lunch. Although he is not against drinking and occasionally takes stronger liquor, he has only wine and beer, and those sparingly, when he is working hard.
"My English, I am afraid that it is not very good," he said as he ate, "but I am have to learn it all for myself. It is lucky that for Flemish boy language is easy to learn. German is very much like Flemish, and I speak French, too. When I am in Tokyo for two weeks I can speak some Japanese. Now I am studying Spanish, so I think by time I am in Mexico City a week I will speak that, too. The times when I go to Sweden, in two weeks I speak Swedish. I think so that if you are good sportsman, with discipline, then all things are easy. I play football, I play very good. The basketball, tennis, all easy for the sportsman."
At present his favorite sport, other than track, is bowling. Two or three times a week he will spend an hour or two at an alley in downtown Brussels, but his game has fallen on hard times.
"Four years ago I make 200 average," he said. He held up his right hand and showed that the middle two fingers and the thumb were a bit stiff and bent. "I have my automobile accident and break these finger and since then I am not able to hold ball as well. I bowl now 160. But it is get better, so maybe I be back to 200 before long."
Roelants talked about the accident only out of a sense of politeness. Undoubtedly it came when he lost a game of chicken.
"I am this far from the center line," he said, holding his hands two feet apart. "We hit head on, but I do not remember much after that. My arm is in—what you call?—plaster. From my hand to here." He pointed to a spot halfway between his elbow and his shoulder.
He was out of competition for nearly 10 weeks after the accident, although he did run once in a 5,000-meter race with his right arm in the cast. He won. "It was painful," he said. "After a few laps the arm is very heavy."
He had finished his lunch now and, after bidding farewell to each of the waiters, led the way down the narrow, crowded street to his shop. By American standards it is tiny, two small rooms crowded with sports clothes and equipment. His wife, a very pretty plump Flemish girl named Monique, was busy selling a pair of Puma track shoes to a teen-ager, who regarded Roelants with some awe. Roelants himself runs in Puma shoes. In one corner of the room, piled high atop a showcase, were his trophies, silver cups polished to a bright luster by Monique.
Roelants went through the shop into the back, where he and Monique have their living quarters. He walked through a long, narrow, immaculate kitchen into a small dining room crowded with a heavy, carved wooden dining set. On the walls were black-and-white photographic prints of dramatic forest scenes and odd-looking treetrunks, all pictures taken by Roelants himself.
He switched on an elaborate hi-fi set and looked expectantly at his guests as a singer plowed through a popular song in English. Roelants asked, surprised, "You do not know him? He is the No. 1. He is Engelbert Humperdinck!" He seemed disappointed to find anyone could be so square.
After Humperdinck had finished, Roelants went up the narrow, winding stairs to dress for his afternoon workout. When he returned, he was wearing a bright-red satin sweat suit, although in meets he generally wears blue.
His afternoon workout began at 5 at the track owned by his club, the Daring Track Club of Leuven. On the way there one of his passengers called the city Louvain and Roelants frowned.
"Not Louvain anymore," he said. "It is Flemish. Leuven." While Roelants competes as a Belgian and considers himself one, he is proud of the Flemings, who are often at odds with the French segment of the Belgian population. With a 21,000-student university, Louvain is one of the centers of Flemish nationalism and, naturally, student protest.
The little stadium is handsome, with small modern stands on one side and a tiny brook meandering through tall trees behind it. A dusty red, the track looks very much like the one at Modesto, where this May Roelants ran—but lost—his first race in America. It was on the Daring track that Roelants set a rather In record for track nuts: he ran 12 miles 1,478 yards in one hour for a world mark.
"It was necessary," said Roelants, who had been named Belgium's Sportsman of the Year four times before and was anxious to gain the honor again. He was sitting on the edge of the track, changing into spikes. "In Budapest in September I am very bad in European championships, although it is fault of the Belgian federation, not of me. I am not allowed to go outside of Belgium for meets and I do not get enough competition. SO, in Budapest I come third. For maybe 2,500 meters I run very strong, but at the end I am like lead. I am numb. I feel nothing, and so I am passed by two men and the Russian wins. I am ahead of my world-record time most of the way, but I do not have anything left. When it is over, I do not make excuse. It does not do any good to do that. This is first time I have tell why I do so bad in Budapest."
To compensate for the Budapest debacle, Roelants arranged the one-hour run. "It is a good record to hold," he said. "And no one else has been the Sportsman even as much as three times." Roelants won the award for the fifth time.
He stood up, taking off his sweat suit, and began to warm up with Andre de Hertoghe, a tiny Belgian miler who, next to Roelants, is probably Belgium's best track man. They ran on the grass in the infield for a while, then moved onto the track.
Roelants, with his long legs, deep chest and erect carriage, looks a good deal like the American miler Jim Beatty. The resemblance to Beatty is even more striking when Roelants is running. He has an extraordinarily long, reaching stride and he runs with his chest out and his arms relaxed. His movement is light and graceful, his touch on the track feathery. He and De Hertoghe ran a couple of miles warming up, and when Roelants stopped he was perspiring freely. The pace had been fast.
While he rested he began arguing with some of the other Daring runners in impassioned Flemish, waving his arms. At one point he stopped and said, "We are talk about how to warm up. Here in Belgium they know nothing. Always warm up very slow. You must go fast when you warm up. That is how you make good results. When I am first running, I learn this. I did not have coach, so when I go to international meets I say nothing, watch and listen, hear what the good runners say. So I know how to warm up. Those, they do not know. They do it wrong. You warm up slow, you run slow."
His present coach, Edmond Van Den Eynde, a teacher at the Catholic University of Louvain, arrived at the track, spoke briefly to Roelants, then rushed off again, explaining that he had to attend a meeting at the university. He is a thick-set, ebullient man, with bushy, iron-gray hair and an outgoing personality, but he has had little to do with the self-trained Roelants' success.
"I have had him since 1960," Roelants said after Van Den Eynde left. "He helps me most with the chrono. You know the chrono?" He pointed to his wristwatch. "What do you call it? Watch? Yes. He helps me with times. But I know times in my head anyway. Always when I am running I know the times. I can watch another runner over 400 meters and tell the time, often exactly. It is because I have run so much. But Van Den Eynde, he help me with hurdles. I am very good on the hurdles. I have very good technique."
He and a companion lugged a heavy steeplechase hurdle onto the track, and he demonstrated his very good technique a few times, taking the hurdle with the low, flat jump of a low hurdler, ticking the top of it with his trailing foot now and then.
"I do not try to count steps between hurdles," he said. "It is too far. It is all done by the eye. The water jump, you step on top of hurdle but do not try to jump all the way over the water, because it is too much effort. I land in the water maybe a foot away from the end. Shoe does not have time to get wet because it is in and out, tock-tock, like that. You understand?"
Now Roelants got ready for the real work of the afternoon: 10 hard 400-meter dashes with only seconds between them. (He had already run 15 kilometers through the woods that morning.) When he had finished, it was only moments before his breathing was back to normal.
"I am recuperate very fast," he said during the drive back to his shop. "It is big shock to doctors one time who are having a medical panel in Brussels with me and some other sportsmen. When I am in good training my pulse it is 44, 45, but I am nervous at this panel, so when they take, is 56. So then I do five-minute step test, step up, step down. Pulse is 155 when I finish, but is not even a minute when they take again. Is only 36.
"Doctors do not believe, but I am recuperate very fast, very fast. When I set world record for steeplechase in August 1965 I run the record, 8:26.4, on Saturday. Then next day, on Sunday, I win the 10,000 meters in 28:24, When I pass the 5,000 meters in 14:20, I am smiling and I feel good, so I run the next 5,000 meters in 14:04 and I am not tired."
He stopped where the photographer had left his car and smiled.
"So. Tomorrow in the forest?" he said. "What time? I run at 8 in the morning. Is too early? I can run at 9 for you."
He arrived the next morning a few minutes after 8, having awakened only 20 minutes before, bright-eyed and ready to run. On the short ride to the Zoete Waters forest he drove with his customary élan, whipping the little Taunus in and out of traffic. The back is plastered over with advertising for his various jobs—an Italian vermouth peddled by Fourcroy, a sticker for Sports 67, Puma ads—and it is well known to the inhabitants of Louvain.
He turned off a paved road onto a narrow direct track into the forest. The lane was lined with tall beech trees, their boles a soft green from moss. An occasional white birch lightened the gloom, and the early sun cut through the woods to dapple the road again.
"Once I used to run all the time, rain, cold, all the time," Roelants said. "But it was when I am young and have the ambition to break records, make good results. Now when it is rain too hard or it is too cold, I wake up and say, 'Today I take off.' " He laughed and shrugged. "I have the hard training already. I have accomplish many things now, so maybe I am not so anxious. But I am still anxious enough, I think. I hope to make my last run a marathon."
His route through the woods covers 1,700 meters a lap, sometimes along the dirt roads, sometimes following a narrow path that was once used for motorcycle races. At places it dips into deep culverts, then climbs steeply out of them. On this morning Roelants ran effortlessly at what seemed a very brisk pace.
Later, in the small dining room behind the shop in Louvain, he discussed his plans for the future. "Maybe I will run in the Europe-North America meet in Montreal," he said. "We hope so. But anything can happen. I can get hurt. I have been hurt before."
One time Roelants was hurt was before the Olympic 3,000-meter steeplechase in Tokyo in 1964. "I hurt my leg," he said, shaking his head at the memory. "For six weeks I could not run. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Only the 14 days in Tokyo, I was able to train and I train very hard. Then the day of the final, in the morning when I was warm up, I hurt the back of my leg here." He put his hand on the hamstring muscle of his right leg. "It is swell up very big. So the doctor is saying, 'Gaston, you cannot run. It is impossible.' For three hours I was in a bed with cold compress on the leg and the doctor say I cannot run. But then I got up and ran and I won. Every time I jump the hurdle, I hit the back of my leg and it makes me jump higher."
He was quiet a moment, thinking. Then he laughed and looked up. "Maybe in Mexico City I run three," he said. "If it is arranged so I can, maybe I run the steeplechase, the 10,000 meters and the marathon. I have never run the marathon, but I am recuperate so fast, and the altitude in Mexico City docs not bother me. I have run the 10,000 meters there and won, and the second man was 32 seconds behind me, and it took me only three days to adjust to the altitude. So it is not so hard.
"And I can run maybe easy in some races. I have the experience now, so that when I run with the good competition I do not pay attention to them. I run to the timetable in my head. I learn to pay no attention to the others. In the Olympics in Rome, when I am new, the Russians sent out a man very fast, just to kill off the competition, but I did not know that. I think I cannot let him get so far ahead so I stay with."
He clapped himself on the forehead at the memory of his stupidity.
"I come fourth," he said. "It is not so bad for my first Olympics, but maybe I could have come second or third. Not first. Not then. Then the Russians were too good. But now it is I who am good."
He got up and stretched and glanced at his watch.
"I must leave so that I can be at Fourcroy by noon," he said. "To see what I must do today, you know? Then I must train hard, too, because I would like to make good records in America and it is early in the season for me."
Someone suggested that he would go to bed early that night after so strenuous a day, but he laughed and shook his head.
"No," he said. "I am too busy. Someone is always call me, I go see them, they come see me. I do not like to go to bed early. Always I am up until 12, one o'clock. There is too much to do, I do not have five minutes to spare. I like it. When you are asleep you are dead, isn't it?"