Hicham El Guerrouj had to wait eight years to win his first Olympic gold medal. Athletics had to wait eighty for him to equal one of the greatest achievements in the history of the sport.
Paavo Nurmi’s double victory in the 1500m and 5000m at the 1924 Games in Paris holds a unique place in the annals of track and field. Even after he won the 1500m on Tuesday, few thought El Guerrouj could match it.
Having witnessed Kenenisa Bekele’s blistering last lap at the end of the 10,000m last Friday, and the Ethiopian’s incredible world record back in June, the pundits just couldn’t see how El Guerrouj would beat him.
Steve Ovett, Britain’s Olympic 800m champion from Moscow in 1980, said El Guerrouj should “simply accept the fact that he’s a miler”. “I can’t see him beating Bekele, no,” said Ovett who himself attempted the difficult transition from miler to 5000m runner.
Haile Gebrselassie held much the same opinion. “Kenenisa will win,” said the Ethiopian, speaking two days before the 5000m final. “When El Guerrouj won [the 1500m] I was really happy for him. He had won everything but was not an Olympic champion. Now he is. This is not only good for El Guerrouj but for the next generation – now he’s an example to them."
“But in the 5000m Bekele has a much better chance.”
Even El Guerrouj had his doubts. Early in the year he dedicated 20 per cent of his training schedule to the 5000m. But breathing problems caused by an allergy impeded his training, preventing him from doing the kind of high volume work he needed. His illness left him short of speed for the 1500m too, and in Rome at the beginning of July he lost for only the fifth time in eight years.
It was clear from his victory in the 1500m final that those problems were behind him, but El Guerrouj still feared the pace of the 5000m specialists. Surely they would simply burn the sting out of his sprint finish.
“When I saw Bekele and his performance in the 10,000m, I was scared,” says the 29 year-old Moroccan. “I saw that last lap and I was impressed. I told myself this is going to be tough. Bekele is so strong and talented.”
History in the making
But with the weight of his Olympic burden lifted, El Guerrouj knew he had a chance to make history. "I can tell you,” he said. “As I was going to sleep I thought about Paavo Nurmi. I said to myself, ‘Hicham, this is a great day for you. You have 20 hours to go. This is the time for you, if you want this medal and to be part of history.’”
Twenty hours later, as he crossed the line just two tenths of a second in front of Bekele, El Guerrouj threw his arms wide and let a huge smile spread across his face before turning to the nearest TV camera, two fingers thrust before him. “Two,” he told the world. “I have two!” Then he lay on his back and called for an official to help him remove his gold coloured shoes.
Standing alongside Nurmi's legend
“Paavo Nurmi is a great legend,” he said later. “He is one of the athletes who marked history. He left his name at his point in time. Now, I’m able to put my name with his. He is from another time, a time when my grandfather was watching him. To stand alongside him now, how I can I express it? There are no words.”
El Guerrouj has now brought his career full circle – his first major international appearance was at 5000m when he took bronze at the 1992 World junior championships in Seoul, a race won by another young runner at the start of his career, Haile Gebrselassie.
But it was four years later, on 3 August 1996, when El Guerrouj’s road to sporting immortality really began. It was the Olympic 1500m final in Atlanta, and with 500m to go the World champion Noureddine Morceli was in the lead. El Guerrouj, at 22, had been tipped to challenge the Algerian World record holder for gold. He moved out of the pack, glided past Spain’s Olympic champion Fermin Cacho, and onto Morceli’s shoulder.
But as they approached the bell, El Guerrouj’s knee grazed Morceli’s right foot. The Algerian stumbled but survived, while El Guerrouj was sent tumbling. He picked himself up to finish, but came home last, shattered and devastated.
The emotional trauma of that defeat has driven El Guerrouj for eight years, a period in which he has dominated the men’s middle distances like no-one before him, winning virtually every title, record and honour in the sport, except the Olympic Games. His defeat by Kenya’s Noah Ngeny in Sydney four years after Atlanta was almost too much to bear, and left him sobbing with tears in the bowels of the stadium.
“When I think about the things that happened to me,” says El Guerrouj, shaking his head. “When I lost in Sydney it was difficult to start running again. But I worked hard for four more years. I was ready. Then this year I had the breathing problems, and only made the decision to come to Athens in July. Six weeks ago I couldn’t breath normally, but one and a half months later I have two golds – it’s fabulous.”
Paris dress rehearsal
Winning the middle and long distance double at these Games has been El Guerrouj’s aim since before the 2003 season. He had a practice run at the Paris World championships last summer, when he beat Bekele but lost to the Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge.
These three stood together on the start line on Saturday, their shoulders almost touching, and for the following 13 and a half minutes were virtually inseperable. Bekele and Kipchoge took turns setting the pace but neither was prepared to push it on. As they waited for each other to make the decisive move, El Guerrouj simply bided his time, running close to the curb, shadowing their moves and waiting to pounce. “I was quite relaxed and at ease during the race,” he said. “I was happy to let my opponents do the work, until the last 100m.”
“We expected it to be faster,” admitted Bekele. “But we waited for each other to do the work. We should have run together to make it faster. But I was tired after the 10,000m.
“Perhaps if I’d gone faster earlier I could have won it. If I’d gone quicker over the last lap, maybe it would have been different. But he is a very good runner, he’s special. This was not my day.”
“My strength is my finish,” said El Guerrouj. “And they made a serious mistake. I thought the tactics would be different. But even after four races I was strong mentally and well prepared. Now they will have to wait four years until 2008. Then, I will not be there.”
El Guerrouj, who again dedicated his medal to his baby daughter, Hiba, clearly has other priorities these days. Not that he’s about to retire from the track. “I can’t decide now what I am going to do in the years to come,” he said. “I’ve always had great pleasure in running. It’s my life, and I have never given up. I’ve come from so far back to have this triumph in Athens.
5000m World record attempt?
“Maybe I will defend my title at the World champonships next year. This year my objective was to win both races at the Olympics in Athens, which is the birthplace of the sport and my ‘birthplace’ as an athlete. Next year I will move onto the next stage and try to break the 5000m world record. Who knows? Maybe I will be there in 2008 after all, racing against Bekele again at 10,000m.”
At which point El Guerrouj turned to his young rival with a smile, and placed a friendly hand on his shoulder.
Up in the stands, watching the historic night unfold, was Nourredine Morceli, the winner of that dramatic 1500 final in Atlanta. He was smiling too. “To make that double at these Games is amazing,” he said of his successor. “Compared to 80 years ago, winning twice is so much harder because the level is so high. But he has a great talent and great desire to win.
“He had won so much in his career except the Olympics, and that meant so much to him. He is such a great athlete and such a great man too. He deserves it.
“Losing in Atlanta was so hard for him,” said Morceli, smiling again. “He has carried that sadness for eight years, but he never gave up. Now he is a true successor to Nurmi.”
Happy as a child
Thinking back to his darkest hour, El Guerrouj took a breath, an easy, relaxed, trouble-free breath, the weight of history lifted at last. “In Sydney I was crying like a baby,” he said. “Now I am as happy as a child.”
Matthew Brown for the IAAF