When Tibo De Smet stood on the line at last summer’s European Athletics Championships in Munich, he couldn’t shake a certain, unsettling feeling.
Alongside him for that heat of the men’s 800m was Great Britain’s Jake Wightman, the reigning world 1500m champion, and all around were other names who for so long seemed to exist on a higher plane.
“I was a bit overwhelmed,” he says. “Up until that point, I was a big track fan and then you’re standing between those runners you look up to all these years.”
But things have since changed. De Smet, 23, is the fastest 800m runner in Europe this year, his Belgian record of 1:45.04 in Luxembourg last month sitting behind only Noah Kibet’s 1:44.98 on the 2023 world list. De Smet isn’t foolish enough to think that counts for anything substantive ahead of next week’s European Athletics Indoor Championships in Istanbul, but it does, at least, convince him he now belongs.
“Going into Istanbul, I have a bit more confidence in myself and I can see myself more in a field like that than last year,” he says. “I do have the fastest European time but it doesn’t mean (much) indoors. Luxembourg was the perfect race and in Istanbul, a lot of tactics will come into play. Anyone can win there.”
In the absence of Mariano Garcia, the reigning European outdoor and world indoor champion, the men’s 800m looks a wide-open affair with no standout favourite but immense strength across its ranks. The beauty of that is almost anyone could end up a finalist, a medallist. The flip side is anyone could also get knocked out in the heats. De Smet’s goal is to secure a spot in that six-man final, an achievement that would crown quite the journey for the former sprinter.
After football and cross country, De Smet finds his niche on the track
For De Smet, life in athletics actually began at the other end of the spectrum – running cross country races with his school. He grew up just outside Ghent and played football in his youth, as a goalkeeper who “wasn’t that good”. In those early cross country races, he realised he was above average at running and so he stuck with the sport, later transitioning to the 400m, which he specialised in from the age of 15 to 19. In 2018, a stress fracture in his foot was the first of a series of injuries that kept him out of the sport for a year and a half.
Once healthy, he encountered a problem well-known to the injured runner on their way back: constantly comparing his times and fitness levels to those achieved by his previous self. He decided he needed a new venture, a new distance, which is how he found his way to the 800m.
“It was nice to have something new after such a long period of injury,” he says. “For me it wasn’t that hard (to transition) as with my former coach, his 400m approach included long runs, he was middle-distance based.”
These days, De Smet typically runs six or seven times a week, covering a maximum volume of 65 kilometres, while he does two strength sessions along with one focused on injury-prevention.
In 2020, while still juggling the 400m with the 800m, he clocked 1:49.01, and the following year he lowered his PB to 1:47.63, qualifying for the European Athletics U23 Championships in Tallinn, Estonia. It was his first championships, and De Smet ran like it, eliminated in the heats after an inexperienced display. But he knew he was going there primarily for experience, walking away with a big lesson in the tactical chess match that is championship racing.
Training with coach Tine Bex for the past two years, De Smet has progressed rapidly. Last June he produced a breakthrough to win the Belgian 800m title in 1:45.32 before lowering his PB to 1:44.89 in Heusden. He went to Munich last August without any major expectations, advancing as a time qualifier into the 800m semifinal, where he finished sixth.
Domestic battles and Van Damme's "legendary" Belgian record
Unsure of what path he wanted to take in academics, he stepped away from his university studies last September, ready to give everything to his sport. “I’m not sure yet if I’m going back next year,” says De Smet, who recently signed a professional contract with Puma. “I had a great summer last year and I wanted to go to the next level, and so I think that was the best decision for me.”
Through the autumn and winter, he had put in five months of uninterrupted work leading up to his first race of the season at the CMCM Indoor Meeting in Kirchberg, Luxembourg. There, De Smet stunned himself and everyone else by smashing the Belgian indoor record, clocking 1:45.04.
“It came a bit out of the blue,” he says. “I knew my form was great but our goal was to run the standard for Istanbul (1:46.75) and when I crossed the line, I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
At the Belgian Indoor Championships last weekend, De Smet was reminded again of the challenge of championship racing, finishing a frustrated second to Eliott Crestan after positioning himself too far back to respond in time when Crestan kicked for home.
Crestan was a world U20 bronze medallist in 2018, an Olympic semifinalist in 2021 and a European finalist in 2022. De Smet knows his presence on the domestic scene is spurring him to greater heights. “When I started running 800s, he was already an established 800m runner and I thought to myself, ‘he’s the same age as me; if he can do it, why can’t I do it?’” says De Smet. “He motivates me and I motivate him.”
Looking towards the outdoor season, De Smet plans to qualify for the World Athletics Championships in Budapest and he also has eyes on Ivo Van Damme’s national record of 1:43.86, which was run to win silver at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. “It’s quite a legendary record for Belgium,” says De Smet.
Having only run nine indoor 800m races in his life, De Smet knows he’s still got plenty to learn. “Running a fast 800m, I can do that now, but I still don’t have my tactics part completely down,” he says.
But he knows, too, that he’s in a far better position going to Istanbul than he was when lining up at previous championships. “I definitely have more confidence in my abilities,” he says. “In Tallinn I didn’t know what to expect, and Munich was my first big one. But now I have seen enough to go in and believe in myself.”
Cathal Dennehy for European Athletics