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El Guerrouj goes into new territory in Ghent

El Guerrouj goes into new territory in Ghent
Phil Minshull for IAAF

21 February 2001 - Hicham El Guerrouj will try to forget the painful memory of his Sydney silver medal in the best way possible—by setting a world record over two miles indoors in Ghent on Friday night.

In his first race of the year, the Moroccan will be aiming to reduce the mark of 8:09.66 set just over a year ago by Ethiopia’s Hailu Mekonnen.

"I’ve never run over two miles before but, yes, I am going for the world record. I plan to go through 3000 in 7:33 to 7:34 which should bring me through inside the old record if I can hold my form," he commented, at a packed press conference on Wednesday.

El Guerrouj said that he had arrived in Belgium in fine form. "I have trained very hard for 40 days but last week I was feeling very tired and felt a bit sick. That’s why I pulled out of running in Birmingham last Sunday, but I am feeling a lot better now. I running over the longer distance to what you normally see me competing at in order to test my physical ability and endurance."

He added that he had been spurred on by the memory of his defeat at the Olympics, when he was overwhelming favourite for the 1500 but ended up beaten in the race for the line by Kenya’s Noah Ngeny.

In an emotional moment at the press conference, tears visibly welled up in his eyes when he recalled the race. "There is not a day still when I do not think about it. It was very hard to take, psychologically, and I am still seeing the images from that race. However, I was blessed by the fact that my family, coach and friends all stood behind me. After Sydney I took 35 days holiday in New York and Marrakech just to try to put it all behind me."

"When I look back, I can see that I lost the race because of the pressure. Everyone was expecting me to win—my friend, family, and even the King. I have no excuses for the defeat but it is also significant that I was also having problems with my former manager at that time." El Guerrouj switched representatives during the winter and now works with the French manager Laurent Bouquillet.

However, after the initial pain, El Guerrouj is now grateful to have the Sydney 1500 silver medal hanging up in his home in Berkane. "OK, I didn’t win a gold in either Atlanta or Sydney but there are many strong runners who have never won an Olympic gold medal, Steve Cram for example."

This year El Guerrouj will continue with running 1500 and mile races but will also dabble at longer distances, including at the IAAF World Championships in Edmonton this summer, where he wants to run double at both the 1500 and 5000.

"I’m staying at 1500 this year because I still feel young enough to do well at it and my coach convinced me I should carry on. But, every year I will run more and more longer distance races and by the Athens Olympics in 2004 I am certain I will be running only the 5000 there."

El Guerrouj though still has to run the qualifying time for Edmonton at 5000, he has not run over 12-and-a-half laps of the track since he was a junior athlete eight years ago, so he will run the distance at a relatively low-key meeting in his native Morocco sometime in July.

However before then he wants to face Ngeny in a rematch of the Olympic final, as soon as possible, in a bid to gain revenge and exorcise the ghosts of Sydney.

"I would like the organiser of the Lievin meeting on Sunday to match us over 2,000," he said, throwing down the gauntlet. "I really want to race him and for him to face me with a big heart. And then I hope all the meeting promoters during the summer will try to put together races with the both of us in them."

Anyone trying to look for animosity between the two men would be mistaken though. "We get on fine off the track and we sat together and talked all night at the IAAF Gala in November. I have accepted my defeat with a big heart. Losing is part of athletics and even a great sportsman such as Mohammed Ali—who I think is probably the greatest sportsman who lived—also lost some matches."

Ngeny will also be in action on Friday night over his Olympic gold medal-winning distance of 1500. After a pair of relatively lacklustre races in Stuttgart and Stockholm, where he also tasted defeat, he returned to top form in Birmingham on Sunday with an impressive victory in a world-leading 1500 time of 3:36.17. Another Olympic gold medallist to make the trip to Belgium is Cuba’s Anier Garcia, who contests the 60 hurdles.

Among the women’s events, the top race of the night could well be the 800. Mozambique’s Maria Mutola and Austria’s Stephanie Graf fought a full-blooded battle over four laps in Birmingham on Sunday as the second in their four-race duel throughout the Energizer EuroSeries, which confounded the theory that athletics is a non-contact sport.

Both women will have no problems going into Friday night’s race fully motivated. In Birmingham, Graf crossed the line first only to be disqualified and Mutola was so shaken that she was distracted and let Morocco’s Hasna Benhassi go by for a narrow victory. In Stockholm last week, Graf came home in front in 1:57.68, the fastest time of the year with Mutola not far behind in 1:58.05.

The organisers have also assembled a high-class women’s high jump field which brings together the Romania’s Monica Dinescu and Oana Pantelimon along with South Africa’s Hestrie Cloete, who jumped an African best of 1.97 on Sunday, and Bulgaria’s Venelina Veneva, who has already cleared 1.98 this year. The women’s 60 pits Jamaica’s evergreen Merlene Ottey against the most consistent female sprinter of the year so far, Bulgaria’s Petya Pendareva.