Runner's World (UK)
RACE FOR REDEMPTION
HICHAM EL GUERROUJ WAS UNBEATABLE AT 1500M, EXCEPT ON THE BIGGEST STAGE OF ALL. THE MOROCCAN'S THIRD AND LAST ATTEMPT TO BEAT HIS OLYMPIC JINX WAS ALMOST TOO AGONISING TO WATCH
CHELSEA WERE AWAY AT CRYSTAL PALACE. I remember, because I had a row with the sports editor of The Independent, where I worked at the time. He planned to devote the next day’s back page to the midweek Premier League action from Selhurst Park. I was incensed that the space wasn’t going to the greatest victory of the greatest middledistance runner of them all.
The sports editor won. To be fair, his rivals on other newspapers made similar calls. They probably felt, as he did, that British readers’ interest in the final week of the Athens Olympics extended only to events in which a Team GB athlete had a chance of a medal. They may have been right. Even so, it felt like a shameful snub.
Sixteen years on, it still feels wrong. This was a race with drama, tension, tactics, courage; two rivals who had run the metric mile faster than anyone in history; a stomachclenching finish; and a human back story to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. How can sport get better than that?
In a world where athletics wasn’t football’s poor relation, the mere fact that Hicham El Guerrouj was involved should have guaranteed the race star billing. For eight years he had not just dominated middle-distance running but redefined it. He had been world champion four times, world indoor champion three times. He had set breathtaking world records at 1500m, the mile and 2000m: records that remain unbroken more than two decades later. The only miler of comparable dominance I can think of is Herb Elliott, who won Olympic gold in Rome in 1960 and who never looked like being beaten at any point in his international career. But Elliott’s supremacy was brief, from 1957 to 1961; then he quit. His world record for 1500m was less than seven years old when American Jim Ryun obliterated it.
El Guerrouj, by contrast, was almost unbeatable for nearly a decade. His dominance seemed superhuman.
His 1500m WR – 3:26.00 to Elliott’s 3:35.6 – has barely been threatened since he set it in July, 1998. Only two other men have ever broken 3:27: El Guerrouj did so five times. Of the 10 fastest miles ever run, El Guerrouj ran seven; the same is true of the 1500m. How could he not be considered the greatest?
Yet he wasn’t quite unbeatable. That’s what made his story so poignant. And that’s what made that race in Athens such a uniquely thrilling moment.
RISE AND FALL
ATHENS WAS HIS THIRD OLYMPICS. For the first, in 1996 in Atlanta, he was an unknown 21-year-old; and even then he’d believed he could win. He’d been dreaming of Olympic gold since his early teens and it didn’t seem like an insuperable problem that, for his first shot at it, he was up against Noureddine Morceli, the Algerian world record holder and triple world champion. But El Guerrouj still had much to learn, about life and about the elusiveness of Olympic dreams.
Born in 1974 in the city of Berkane, in the northeastern corner of Morocco, he had grown up in modest circumstances. His father ran a sandwich bar; his mother worked hard to keep seven children fed, clothed and clean, and, as a result, discouraged Hicham’s early passion for football. (He played in goal, so his clothes were often filthy.) Running came into his life in 1984, when his compatriot Said Aouita won the 5000m at the Los Angeles Olympics. The country went into ecstasies at the glory Aouita had brought to his homeland, and 10-year-old El Guerrouj was one of many Moroccans who adopted him as a role model.
He did so initially in after-school laps of a local track. Then he began to race. By 14, he had attracted the attention of national athletics administrators. Soon, despite his parents’ misgivings, he became a full-time athlete.
It was the making of him. Morocco had one of the world’s most sophisticated national training programmes, thanks to the enthusiasm of Aouita and Morocco’s king, Hassan II. The teenage El Guerrouj was soon living at the national training centre in Rabat, the capital, where his development was initially overseen by Aziz Daouda, the technical director; and Abdelkader Kada, who became his long-term coach. At first, he focused on 5000m and crosscountry, but from 1994 he began to prioritise the 1500m and mile – and Daouda and Kada realised that they had found Morocco’s next superstar.
Aouita was taking an interest in the 20-year-old’s training by then, as was King Hassan II. The elite middle
FOR FOUR YEARS, HE WAS KEPT A PHOTO OF HIS POSTRACE TEARS AND LOOKED AT IT EVERY DAY
distance training programme was shaped around El Guerrouj, and his talent blossomed, especially when boosted by regular visits to Ifrane, 1,600m above sea level in the Middle Atlas mountains, where he would do three-week bursts of altitude training.
In August 1995, El Guerrouj came second in the 1500m at the World Championships in Sweden, then, a week later, he ran 3:31.16, a personal best that would have won the championship race comfortably. He arrived in Atlanta the following summer having recently run a season’s best of 3:29.59; still a second and a half slower than Morceli’s world record but threateningly close to the Algerian’s 1996 best of 3:29.50.
The Atlanta final began slowly. Morceli took the lead 700m out, shadowed by Spain’s Fermín Cacho – shock victor in Barcelona four years earlier – and, just behind, El Guerrouj. Approaching the bell, El Guerrouj went wide to pass Cacho, paused on Morceli’s shoulder and prepared to strike. This, he knew, was his moment.
He kicked; Morceli accelerated; El Guerrouj attacked again. As he did so, Morceli’s right heel caught his left toe. Morceli lurched forward but kept his footing. El Guerrouj fell badly.
He got up quickly, but it was too late. He trailed home last, then crept to the side of the track to weep. Photographers swarmed around him, and shared his misery with the world. ‘It was,’ said El Guerrouj later, ‘the darkest day of my life’. He forgot to add, ‘So far’.
Fast-forward four years, to the Olympic Stadium in Sydney. El Guerrouj is now without question the greatest 1500m runner on the planet. He is double world champion (1997 and 1999), world indoor champion, world record holder; he has lost only one race (a second place in Japan in 1997) since falling in Atlanta. He is said to earn $2m a year from endorsements. Yet he has persisted unwaveringly with his semi-monastic existence at the national training programme’s centres in Rabat and Ifrane. His most recent WR – blasting three seconds off the 2000m mark – was set a year ago. He has been training much harder since then.
That’s partly because he has turned his Olympic heartbreak into a strength. For four years, he has kept above his bed a photograph of his postrace tears and looked at it every day, to remind him of the pain that needed to be exorcised. ‘Every day, I think of what happened,’ he told a journalist. ‘The memories have made me strong like steel. I am like a soldier ready for battle.’
But soldiers preparing to risk their lives aren’t always as happy as they pretend. So it was with El Guerrouj: beneath his steel-like strength, there was fear. This was his chance to make everything right again, finally, after all these years. But what if he didn’t? He could feel the weight of 30 million Moroccans’ expectations, including those of their new king, Mohamed VI, who had travelled to Sydney to watch and summoned El Guerrouj for an encouraging audience the day before the race.
In the morning, El Guerrouj confessed to those around him that he was afraid he might lose. On the bus to the stadium, he wept. He knew that he had to win – but what if he didn’t? ‘It will be a big problem,’ Aziz Daouda warned journalists. ‘Psychologically, it will be the end of his career.’
Despite such doubts, El Guerrouj began the 1500m final as overwhelming favourite and, for most of the race, he looked like it. His Moroccan team-mate, Youssef Baba, helped him by making a fast early pace; then, early in the third lap, El Guerrouj moved to the front. With 600m to go, he started to wind up the pace. The field stretched •
out rapidly, but two Kenyans, Noah Ngeny and Bernard Lagat, remained in touch, as did Mehdi Baala of France. Ngeny, in particular, looked strong.
An upset still seemed improbable. All through the last lap, El Guerrouj accelerated, but the Kenyans hung on – and suddenly the threat loomed. Coming out of the last bend, Ngeny moved out to overtake and gradually closed the gap. With 40 metres to go, he came level; with 20 metres left, he hit the front. El Guerrouj had neither the time nor the energy to respond. Ngeny won by a quarter of a second, in a new Olympic record of 3:32.07. El Guerrouj, who had once run six seconds faster, had nothing to console him but his first Olympic medal – a silver, which, in the circumstances, was probably worse than no medal at all. In the space of 20 strides, the redemption that had dominated his thoughts for four long years had been snatched away.
El Guerrouj retreated to a bench and wept uncontrollably, his heaving breath amplifying his sobs. Kada tried in vain to console him. Once again, the photographers swarmed, while journalists rushed to write race reports that could hardly fail to be crushing. It was, wrote Duncan Mackay in The Guardian, ‘a defeat from which he may never recover.’
AND NOW, FAST-FORWARD another four years. This time, we are in Athens, on the evening of August 24, 2004. This is the contest that will define Hicham El Guerrouj’s life. Once again, he has a chance to redeem himself; but it is his slimmest chance yet.
It has been a long and difficult journey. After Sydney, he wanted to give up. His family and friends talked him out of it. By early 2001, he was racing again, and although it took him time to rediscover his motivation, he seems to have found it comforting to re-embrace his unforgiving training regime. He got used to winning again: for the next three years his only losses were at 5000m. There were no more world records, but there were three sub3:27 1500ms and a sub-3:45 mile, so he was close to his irresistible best. He won three consecutive IAAF Golden League prizes, in 2001, 2002 and 2003, and in August 2003 he claimed yet another 1500m gold – his fourth – at the World Championships. It would have been absurd to argue that anyone then running was better at the distance than he was; the IAAF, unprecedentedly, named him World Athlete of the Year three years in a row.
By early 2004, he was a more rounded person. On his father’s advice, he had started reading newspapers, to remind him there are worse things in life than losing a couple of races. A UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, he was devoting time and money to charitable work, especially to promote health, education and sport for young Moroccans. He was 29, newly married and due to become a father. His unrelenting training limited his exposure to this growing emotional hinterland, but he was developing a psychological maturity that, combined with his physical gifts, could allow him to overcome his Olympic jinx.
Then things started going wrong. He began to feel stressed and – possibly connected – to suffer badly from allergies. He spent several months being treated for asthma and altogether lost nearly four weeks’ training. In July, he raced in a Golden Gala event in Rome and finished eighth, ‘a disaster for me, psychologically’, he said. In August, he thought he was back to his best, but was beaten into second place in the Zürich Weltklasse by Bernard Lagat. He tried not to dwell on that – there was less than a quarter of a second between them. But when he bowed his head on the Athens starting line for his last shot at redemption a month later, with Lagat in the next lane, it wasn’t just his inner demons that doubted him.
There were 12 finalists, but most saw it as a showdown between Lagat and El Guerrouj, the two fastest men on
the planet. None of the other 10 had even broken 3:30 for 1500m, while only five – Rui Silva, Timothy Kiptanui, Ivan Heshko, Reyes Estevez and Isaac Kiprono Songok – had broken 3:31. El Guerrouj had broken 3:30 28 times, including nine sub-3:28s. Lagat was newer to this rarefied level, but since 2001 he had run five sub-3:30s, including three sub-3:28s, while his 3:26.34 in Brussels in 2001 had been only marginally outside El Guerrouj’s WR. He was an Olympic bronze medallist (just 0.12 sec behind El Guerrouj in Sydney) and a World silver medallist (0.42 sec behind El Guerrouj in Edmonton in 2001). In short, this was an opponent worthy of the world’s greatest miler and a duel worthy of a final in the land that gave birth to the Olympics.
It was hard to identify a favourite. El Guerrouj had the advantage of being the best miler of all time. Lagat had the advantage of not being haunted by past failures. He also had two supportive Kenyans racing with him: Kiptanui and Songok. El Guerrouj had no one. The other Moroccan, Adil Kaouch, had sacrificed himself in the past for his compatriot, but was now hoping for his own medal. On the biggest night of his life, El Guerrouj was alone.
AFTER A FALSE START BY SONGOK, the gun fires a second time. El Guerrouj has just over three and a half minutes to save his sporting life.
The three Kenyans quickly take the lead, then form a wide wall to keep the pace slow. The first lap takes a comfortable 1:00.42. El Guerrouj stays out of trouble, running slightly wide of the mid-pack.
Early in the second lap, Reyes Estévez, the Spaniard, moves to the front. El Guerrouj follows him gratefully. But Lagat and Kiptanui are soon back in front and the pace slows again. They go through 800m in a leisurely 2:01.93. The race feels dangerously open.
Early in the third lap, El Guerrouj takes control. He works his way to the front and then, going into the back straight, begins to surge. This is what he always does: winds it up with 600 or 700 metres to go. His rivals, unsurprised, allow themselves to be wound up, hoping to hang on until they’re within striking distance of the finish.
That third lap is fast: 53.28. Most of the field appear to be in touch at the bell, with El Guerrouj a couple of strides ahead of Lagat, followed closely by Ivan Heshko of Ukraine and Mulugeta Wendimu, the young Ethiopian. But the Moroccan’s surge is deadlier than it looks. Each 100-metre segment he runs in the second half of the race is faster than the last. As the final lap unfolds, you can see how much his rivals are suffering. On the first bend, Wendimu drifts backwards. Estévez powers forward to join the leading group, but never quite gets there. Rui Silva of Portugal •
works his way up to fourth in the back straight. The rest have lost touch and in the resulting daylight you can see clearly the brave aggression of El Guerrouj’s front-running. The line of beaten men behind him grows longer, yet he’s still accelerating, lengthening and speeding up his stride, just as he did for his world records.
Going into the final bend, Heshko falters, leaving only three: El Guerrouj, Lagat and Silva. Everyone else has been broken. But – you can’t help noticing – that’s not enough. Lagat is only a stride behind. Just like Ngeny four years earlier, he is perfectly poised to strike and, just like Ngeny, he looks strong. Coming into the straight, Lagat moves out to attack. El Guerrouj desperately needs to find another gear, yet somehow he can’t.
It’s almost too painful to watch. El Guerrouj seems to have something heavy dragging him back. The whole stadium can see what’s happening: he’s being crushed by the weight of his history.
With 50 metres remaining, Lagat inches level and then, for a moment, hits the front. I’m screaming at the television by now. I hate to think what they’re doing in Morocco. Why can’t El Guerrouj find something extra?
And then, miraculously, he does. Even though he’s already running much, much faster than most of us realise, he asks his body for more. This time, he explains later, he feels ‘a connection between my head and my body’. He knows that, in contrast to Sydney, he hasn’t overtrained. He is no longer shocked that an Olympic final should produce a moment in which only a superhuman response can stave off catastrophe. He asks for more and his body is primed to answer his call. He knows Lagat must be suffering. He knows Lagat cannot want this as much as he does. He thinks about Atlanta and Sydney. He thinks about his wife and baby daughter. He tells himself, ‘Hicham, don’t lose. Hicham, don’t lose.’
His body responds. He seems to claw his way forward, drifting right and forcing Lagat to do the same. There is none of the baffled passivity that was on his face in Sydney; just pure, primal ferocity. He refuses to lose. He draws level. Their legs move in time. But El Guerrouj really believes now, while Lagat’s mouth is gaping. El Guerrouj finds one last kick and he’s ahead by the thickness of his body. It’s not enough – or is it? And then, suddenly, he seems to grow stronger and, for the final three or four strides, you realise – he realises – that he’s won it.
He crosses the line. It’s over. He is Olympic champion, by just over a hundredth of a second. He falls to his knees, presses his forehead to the track, gives thanks and then rolls onto his back in convulsions of relief. Once again, he is sobbing. Lagat kneels down to join him. The tenderness
of their embrace is an unforgettable Olympic moment in its own right. Others – Kiptanui, Heshko, Silva – join them. His joy is so overwhelming that it is impossible not to share in it. He is laughing and crying; jogging over to his wife and daughter and covering them with kisses; dancing to the Zorba the Greek bouzouki music on the PA system. He feels, he says, ‘like a four- or five-year-old child’. All that bitterness and regret, all that weight on his shoulders, it’s all gone, just like that. Later, he tells journalists, ‘Now I am complete.’ But we could see that for ourselves.
DOUBLE AND QUITS
THAT WASN’T THE END. The next day he was back for the 5000m heats and then, three days later, for the final. Again, he won. This was arguably a greater achievement than the 1500m. Only one other man – Paavo Nurmi, in 1924 – had won both races at the Olympics and El Guerrouj, with limited experience of the distance, was up against Eliud Kipchoge, the world champion, and Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, the world record holder.
According to the clock, it was another close-run contest, with El Guerrouj holding off Bekele by 0.2 of a second. Yet for me and for many others, it was never in doubt. As Kada put it, ‘After the victory in the 1500m, he could run free.’
And that, fittingly, really was the end. He never raced again. For 18 months, he struggled with injury, illness and, above all, motivation. He talked about trying to add a 5000m world record to his collection, but the fire had gone. In May 2006, rather than ‘betray athletics by running without passion’, El Guerrouj retired.
He remains prominent in sport, but increasingly devotes his energy to philanthropy. (He was recently the driving force behind World Athletics’ creation of a coronavirus hardship fund for athletes.) No one questions his greatness or his status as, in Morceli’s words, ‘a true successor to Nurmi’. He is obviously at peace with himself.
This is the peace of a man who considers himself blessed, as well he might. Yet without that brief, breathtaking latenight drama in Athens – 3 minutes and 34.18 seconds of guts and genius, including a last lap of 51.91 – he would still be a multiple Olympic loser, haunted by might-have-beens. That night transformed him utterly: his past, his present and his future. ‘I knew that medal would change my life,’ says the greatest middle-distance runner in history; and, for that reason, ‘I absolutely had to win.’
And the football? Chelsea won 2-0.