World 800m champion Djabir Said-Guerni is aware that 2004 won't be like the previous year when he clinched the gold medal under the nose of Russia’s pre-race favourite Yuriy Borzakovskiy, as few observers would have bet on a winning return for the Algerian despite his past international achievements which included two global bronze medals (1999 World championships and the Olympic Games in Sydney).
Since Said-Guerni was sidelined for a year due to a serious injury to the arch of his foot in 2001, he has been competing sparingly as a precaution. Although his African title and second place at the World Cup in 2002 could have been signs he hadn't lost any of his striking force, the 26-year old stayed out of the main international limelight, leaving few to imagine that the best was still be to come.
No indoor season
"This year I'll be in everybody's sights" admits the Paris-based athlete, coached by his father Zine, who is currently preparing on the 340m-lap of the Joseph Maigrot hall at the French Sports Institute. This is the only indoor place he can be seen this winter as he chose to skip the indoor season. Instead in his preparation plans for the summer is a training camp in Qatar or Saudi Arabia, as a step to adapt to the weather conditions that will prevail in Athens next summer.
Not feeling any pressure
Despite his newly gained status, Said-Guerni doesn't intend to be put under pressure for all that. On the contrary the athlete seems to have nerves of steel and to take a particular pleasure in the psychological warfare which underlies most competition.
"I really get pleasure from running in competition. Feeling the others interacting around you, the little pushes, hearing and feeling their breath, feeling the wind and the whole surrounding atmosphere, the public, the speaker, the TV screen board…. This is what I will miss most the day my career is over."
In a discipline where the physical strengths are more or less equal what makes the difference is above all the mental qualities of an athlete. "To be a good 800m runner you need courage, perseverance, in a word, to be a warrior, but also a fair share of intelligence."
"Before the start I visualise my race 3 or 4 times. During the race itself I still have an ability to calculate a lot, imagining my opponents' moves and adapting my reactions further. In the end the question that always comes up on 800m is, ‘is this the right time to make the move or not?’"
"I had to get a medal, even if I had to die for it"
"At the World Championships in Sevilla, in 1999, I decided to go very early, starting like a madman and getting caught by Wilson Kipketer (DEN) and Hezekiel Sepeng (RSA) in the end. I felt, that year, that I had to go, that is what I needed to get a name in athletics and get introduced to the meet circuit" he recalls.
"The following year in Sydney, I was in really good shape. The problem is that I pulled a hamstring in Australia. In my head I had to win the semi-final, but you have to know I was feeling a lot of pain. I nevertheless chose to run the final even if it was to make the injury worse in the end. At 600m, I got disturbed by the collision between Longo and Bucher and when the pace sped up, I couldn't follow. But in the last 100m I regained self-control and decided to give all. I had to get a medal, even if I had to die for it".
Experience is the key
While getting back to his top level following his injury proved to be extremely difficult, requiring a lot of sacrifices ("knowing about it, I really take my hat of to those who go back to the top following long injury breaks"), past experience appears to be decisive when it comes to going through the successive rounds of big championships.
"In Paris the 800m was very tricky with only the first two qualifying automatically to the following round. It brings permanent stress but you have to try to dispose of it a maximum. In the first round I think that strength and racing experience was the key to qualification. In semi-final it was about freshness and experience. And the final, I think it was simply my day. Thanks to God, I proved stronger or cleverer than anyone else. I never felt as light as that day. In my head I was controlling all the race and the pace just happened to suit me. Maybe some of my opponents were fresher than me but in the end experience was the deciding factor".
I feel like a king
Only two weeks after his victory when Said-Guerni set foot back on his home soil could grasp the scope of his achievement to his fellow countrymen's eyes.
"In Algeria, people have been known me and looked at me differently for a few years. But since my victory I feel like a king. The population's gratitude towards sportsmen who bring medals home is just huge. And this can never be taken away from me ".
Such a sheer moment of pleasure shared by his people is in itself motivation enough for Said-Guerni once more to give his all to reproduce this achievement in Athens this summer.