Guerrouj bids farewell to the 1500 metres – maybe
Ed Gordon for the IAAF
12 August 2001 – Edmonton - Adil Kaouch limped home almost eighteen seconds behind the winner in the 1500 meters Sunday afternoon, but he was still a satisfied man. His work had been done very well. Almost as well as in Seville two years ago.
As one of three Moroccans in the final, it was Kaouch who made certain the pace of the final never sagged, making the atmosphere much like one of those Golden League meetings on which his countryman Hicham El Guerrouj has thrived for so many years.
With a 55.41 and 1:53.69 from his teammate, El Guerrouj powered away with 700 meters remaining to win his third world title in 3:30.68.
"It has been a difficult year for me since the Olympics, but thanks to my family, I was able to get up to the very front again. When I crossed the finish line today, I just wrote on the track 'I love you all' to show my gratitude," he said in a euphoric tone.
By comparison in 1999, Kaouch had set an even more blistering pace. His opening laps were 54.31 and 1:52.51, leading to the current championship record of 3:27.65 by El Guerrouj.
But life's lessons are not easily lost on the Moroccan, and it was to be expected that he would be playing his tactical cards closer to the vest this year after his narrow loss in Sydney. With the revelation in the post-race press conference that this may have been his last 1500-metre race, his conservative "win at any speed" approach made complete sense.
El Guerrouj has always regarded himself as invincible over the final 600 metres of this event. And today this was a uncannily accurate evaluation of a kick which started with 700, not 600, metres remaining.
Coming off the final turn with a five-metre lead, precisely 600 metres after starting his sprint, the Moroccan began to decelerate noticeably, perhaps thinking he had totally blown away his competition.
Bernard Lagat, who himself looked momentarily vulnerable on the final curve, suddenly accelerated and, with his second-place time of 3:31.10, made the final result closer than the Moroccan probably would have liked.
Did El Guerrouj glance up at the giant screen to see Lagat's stealthy approach over the closing metres? No one asked, and the Moroccan didn't tell.
Lagat's medal was especially treasured, because originally he had not been on the Kenyan roster for Edmonton. Only in late July did his federation name him as a replacement for an ailing Noah Ngeny.
"This is one placing better than Sydney," said the Olympic bronze medallist. "But I still have a long way to go."
Lagat, who will not turn 26 until snows cover the ground in his training home in eastern Washington, admitted that his best days are still in the future. "I can race in Paris, in Athens, and maybe even in Beijing in seven years. Who knows? I'm young and have lot of time to win championships."
The bronze medal also came from added effort. Driss Maazouzi of France was no better than fifth at the bell, but he kept and eye on William Chirchir of Kenya and Spain's Reyes Estévez before mowing them down in the final straight.
"Age does not matter in this sport," said Maazouzi, actually the fourth Moroccan-born runner in the final. And he affirmed Lagat's sentiments.
"I'm 31 years old, and just won my first world championship medal. Age plays no part if you really want something."
His win now part of history, El Guerrouj expanded on his future plans at the medallists press conference. It is already well known that he will be running his first 5000 next Friday in Zürich. And after his 7:23.09 debut at the 3000 in Brussels two years ago--still the number-two performance ever--this has to be one of the most eagerly awaited races of the year.
"I think this was my last 1500-metre race at the World Championships," he began, cautiously. "But my coach doesn't agree. He'll have to convince me either one way or the other, and we'll see what comes of it."
After a pause, El Guerrouj began to sound more definite. "My goal is to be the best runner of all time at both 1500 and 5000. I'd like to run the 5000 both in Paris in two years and then at the Olympics in Athens. I still feel young. If I could have run both events here, I would have done it. But the time schedule did not allow this possibility."
For El Guerrouj to walk away from unfinished business--that of winning an Olympic gold in the 1500--seems incredulous. Our "sixth sense" says that we'll see him again in the future in the "metric mile", and at a very high-level competition.