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.
"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.