‘Who was that?’ was the first comment that sprung to mind as Algeria’s Nouria Merah-Benida swept in and grabbed the 1500m Olympic title from under the noses of the race favourites Gabriela Szabo, Violeta Beclea-Szekely and Kutre Dulecha in Sydney.
The IAAF’s Polly Wright wanted to find out, and here’s what she discovered.
What are you doing now ?
I am in South Africa for altitude training, and I will be here for another two weeks. I don’t like cold weather, so this location now is perfect: it’s warm and it’s at altitude.
How do you feel now that the Olympic Games have passed?
That was a really exciting time. But the thing is, nothing has really has changed. I still live my life the same way as before. When I got home, I had really wanted to take at least a month’s break before resuming training. Things were a little crazy, so many people wanted to see me, speak to me, and I practically had to stay indoors at home so that I could relax and take a break. It was an unforgettable time.
What was going through your mind as you crossed the finish line to take the Olympic 1500m gold medal?
Lots of people said that I didn’t appear happy as I crossed the finish line, but that is not true at all. The fact is I was so concentrated, so focused on the race and that is why I didn’t show my joy.
My first reaction was to think about God, and to thank him for helping to achieve such success. My second thoughts were for Algeria, my country. I was so proud that I would be able to drape the Algerian flag around my shoulders as I went on the victory lap.
Representing my country is very important for me. It means a lot, especially for all the people watching on television. I remember watching when Hassiba Boulmerka won (the 1992 Olympic 1500m title) and the reaction from the Algerian people was so enthusiastic, it was such an exciting time, people were so happy. I was very proud to wear my flag.
Your victory came as a surprise for most of the people watching the race. Were you yourself also surprised?
Yes and no. I was really well prepared for these Olympic Games. In the months leading up to the competition, I trained and trained and trained. So I was really fit, in very good condition. The Olympic Games only happen every four years, so I really went for it, to make sure I was in the best possible condition for this event.
I had never reached the final (of a major Championship event) before, and when you are there toeing the start line, you’re nervous, you’re frightened, but then it’s the same for everybody. I was aiming for a medal, no matter what the colour, and felt I had a good chance of taking silver or bronze, because I was in such good condition, I felt strong. I kept of repeating to myself, "you must win, you must do it, for once in your life". The thing that troubled me most was the thought of falling over.
What about hobbies?
I don’t really like going out especially to noisy places, so that rules out discotheques. I like to stay at home and relax, and when I have time I like to cook. I most particularly like making sweet dishes, typical Arab desserts.
What are your plans for 2001?
I will race in a couple of indoor meetings, not too many. Of course, the main aim is the World Championships in Edmonton, where I hope to win another world title. I will also be at the Mediterranean Games where I will go to defend the 1500m title I earned in 1997.
I do prefer running at major international events. It’s more satisfying when you win, as you are able to win for your country. It is also much more intense, and nerve wracking, but that also makes it that much more exciting!