To the capacity crowd of 47,000 at the Stade Roi Baudouin madly urging him on, it may have appeared that Saif Saaeed Shaheen only knew the World record in the 3000 metres Steeplechase was finally his, when he waved his thanks and appreciation some fifty metres before reaching the finish line.
But Shaheen, the reigning World Champion, said his new global standard of 7:53.63, breaking the 7:55.28 set by Brahim Boulami on the same track just over three years ago, was all but assured two-thirds into the race.
"Just after the 2000 metre mark, when I saw 5:18, I said that this is what I've been training for. Then with two laps to go, I saw it was like 5:47, and I said I was inside the World record. And I just kept pushing harder and harder. When I saw the last lap, 6:49, I was very happy. Normally my last lap is 59, 60 or 61. I thought, 'man, I'm inside by six or seven seconds.'"
It was a fitting season finale for the event's premiere star of the past two years, whose effort this evening sliced nearly four seconds from his previous best. Unable to compete at the Olympic Games because of his change of allegiance to Qatar last year, the Memorial Van Damme was his Olympic Games, and he didn't disappoint.
Following pacemakers Vincent Le Dauphin and Kipkirui Misoi through 2000 metres, the 21-year-old said he was guided by the crowd for the remaining two-and-half laps.
"What made me run fast was the crowd, and the drums, especially down by the water jump," he said. "It really made me run fast," he added, mimicking the quick sustained rhythm of the stadium's percussionists.
Watching the Olympic Games from his home in Nairobi was disappointing, but Shaheen, the former Kenyan Stephen Cherono, found an appropriate way to comfort himself.
"Yes, I was a little bit frustrated," Shaheen admitted as he recalled the Kenyan podium sweep. "When I watched the Games I just consoled myself that I had an injury. So I sat down next to the TV and watched the Olympics like any other person."
"It could have been a very interesting race for me," he continued. "They were very, very happy. The way I saw it was that they were celebrating because I was not here. If I was there, they would have maybe been second or third. Because I would have scared them. Because they fear me so much."
Never one to mask his confidence, Shaheen is also very willing to give credit when it is due, and was eager to do so tonight. After all, after numerous record assaults, several very close, he knows he can't go it alone.
"I talked to the pacemakers this morning after breakfast and again after lunch, and I just said, 'man, just try to take me fast through the first 2000 metres, and I'll do the rest alone.' And I really, really appreciate what they did for me. But breaking the World record again. that's very, very difficult now. I may not get another opportunity again to do it. So I really thank them."
After capping his stellar 2003 season with the fastest time of the year en route to a thrilling win at the World Athletics Final last September, Shaheen said he would probably move on from the steeplechase at the end of 2004. But since he was not able to contest the Olympic Games, Shaheen said that plan has changed.
"Perhaps I'll run the steeple until I get Olympic gold. Then I'll try to run some other distances: the 5000, the 10,000, the Marathon. But in Beijing," he confirmed, "I will run the 3000 metres Steeplechase."
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF