MonteCarloNeither Hicham El Guerrouj (amazingly) nor Hestrie Cloete (unsurprisingly) went through 2003 unbeaten, but it is testament to their competitive power that they won the ones that count, the World titles in their specialities.
Their consistency has also earned them the World Athlete of the Year awards and the $100,000 that goes with it. In El Guerrouj's case, the Moroccan has uniquely won the award for a third consecutive time, while Cloete takes her first.*
They received their awards last night at the International Athletic Foundation Gala, the prestigious annual worldwide television spectacular, hosted this year at the Grimaldi Forum by IAAF and IAF President Lamine Diack, in the presence of IAF Honorary President HSH Crown Prince Albert of Monaco.
We say 'amazingly' about El Guerrouj, because we have become so accustomed to the Moroccan winning virtually everything he puts his mind to. But this has been a year of transition for El Guerrouj. His decision to double at the World Championships in Paris meant that he had a fairly restricted season, while putting in the extra work necessary to accommodate both the 1500 and 5000 metres. Accordingly, he began the year with his only indoor race, a Two Miles at Liévin on February 23. Racing through 2000 metres in 5:01.31, he set national records at both 3000 metres and the full two miles - 7:33.73 and 8:06.61.
Then it was back to the drawing board, and the Moroccan hero did not emerge until a 7:30.23 season's best 3000 metres in Torino on June 6. This was to be a warm-up for his senior debut at 5000 metres in Ostrava the following week, when he had something of a shock. He ran the fastest ever debut, a personal best 12:50.24, but got beaten! Twenty year old Stephen Cherono of Kenya ran away from him on the last lap, to record the year's fastest, 12:48.81.
Cherono would have an eventful season of his own, which has been amply recorded elsewhere. Suffice to say, in his new guise as Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar, the former Kenyan World champion 'chaser is going to keep us entertained for years to come.
As for El Guerrouj, it was back to the training track. There were a few injury problems which contributed to his short season, but El Guerrouj was determined to go through with his plans to double in Paris. Two fast 1500 metres in three days in mid-July underlined his domination of the middle distances.
First, on his favourite track in Rome's Olympic Stadium - where he has set both 1500 metres and Mile world records - he whizzed through the three and three-quarter laps in 3:29.76, then two days later in Gateshead, 3:33.41 was sufficient for another crushing victory. A month away from competition, but spent nursing various aches and pains while maintaining his high volume of training came to an end with the pre-Paris Golden League in Zurich, where he dashed anyone's hopes of getting near him at 1500 metres, with another runaway win, in 3:29.13.
Then, it was on to Paris, and an unprecedented fourth successive 1500 metres title, and another 5000 metres defeat - by 0.04sec - to another young Kenyan, Eliud Kipchoge. But, said El Guerrouj, that taught him a valuable tactical lesson for next year's attempted Olympic double.
He kept the fastest until almost last, a season's best 3:28.40, to win the Brussels Golden League 1500 metres on September 5, and then two days later in Rieti, his Mile victory in 3:50.20 was his 79th win at 82 1500/Mile events in seven years.
But the cracks were beginning to show, he looked tired in Rieti, and although he turned up to promote the inaugural World Athletics Final in Monaco on September 13/14, he withdrew from the 1500 metres, citing fatigue. But he'd done more than enough to maintain his lead in the world rankings, and win another male World Athlete of the Year award, for an unprecedented third time.
It would be amazing if a field eventer could go through a whole season or year unbeaten, given the little things that can go wrong technically on any given day. But Hestrie Cloete's consistency has been such that she recorded 22 wins in 26 High Jump competitions throughout 2003 - so far!
It is a conundrum, yet to be explained, that the higher the altitude, the lower the winning height for Cloete, formerly Storbeck. But, given the lengthy season that the South African from Germiston has had, she has evidently been pacing herself better than El Guerrouj.
The competitive year began at home in Potchefstroom on January 31, and, apart from a flying, successful visit - victory in 1.96 metres - to the Banamex Meeting in Mexico City, she remained unbeaten at home in ten straight meetings through to Pretoria on April 4. Cloete's lowest winning height was 1.90m - three times, including the national title in Port Elizabeth on April 26, and her best came with a 1.97m in Durban on April 11.
She got a bit of a shock when she came on the circuit, and bumped into her international colleagues, three of her four defeats came in a row - 1.92m for 10th (!) in Oslo on June 27, 1.97m, equal second in Lausanne on July 1, and 1.99m for second in Paris on July 4.
But the bar and the temperature were rising. Apart from a fourth place in 1.98m in Eberstadt on July 26, the rest of the season belonged to Cloete. She equalled her African record with 2.05 metres in Berlin on August 10, and buried the opposition in Paris, when she cleared every height first time, up to her 13th African record of 2.06m. A 2.03m in Brussels and a 2.01m in Monaco were sufficient to earn her another first, female World Athlete of the Year 2003.
In an emotional address to the assembly at the prize-giving ceremony at the Forum Grimaldi, after receiving her award from HRH Prince Albert, she said, "It's been a great year for me, I couldn't have asked for better". She thanked husband, family, coach, agent, everyone who supported her, including the IAAF, ending with, "It makes it all worth living for". And we cannot say better than that!
Of the other Awards presented -
Rising Stars -
Usain Bolt (JAM)
Kenenisa Bekele (ETH)
Tirunesh Dibaba (ETH)
Allyson Felix (USA)
Eliud Kipchoge (KEN)
Distinguished Career Award -
Cathy Freeman (AUS)
* NB. El Guerrouj has uniquely won the World Athlete of the Year Award on three consecutive occasions. Carl Lewis (1988, 1991) and Michael Johnson (1996, 1999) have both won it twice. Marion Jones has won the women's Award on three occasions but not consecutively (1997, 1998 and 2000).