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Ramzi takes 800 gold and now thinks beyond

BeijingRashid Ramzi, the newly crowned Olympic men’s 1500m champion, had a decision to sleep on last night – if he could get to sleep. As Ramzi left the National Stadium, his body clock was worrying him more than the dilemma of whether to double and run in the 5000m.

After winning Bahrain’s first Olympic gold medal, Ramzi declined to confirm that he would line up in the 5000m heats tonight.

“I have not made decision yet,” Ramzi claimed. His talk was less convincing than his actions on the track as he took the first step towards repeating Hicham El Guerrouj’s 2004 Athens Olympic double triumph.

Furthermore, Ramzi became an Olympic champion in his first 1500m of the season. He only competed in two previous races, one was over Two Miles, the other over 5000m. Evidence, surely, that his mind is set on the longer distance here as well.

Asked if he would double, the 28-year-old Moroccan-born bricklayer’s son said: “My country is in a totally different time and I have been having problems sleeping. There is a seven-hour time difference and I have not been able to get used to it. But I will decide very quickly whether I will participate in the 5000.”

Nobody seriously believed that Ramzi would do anything other than return for the second half of a double attempt that would seal an extraordinary accomplishment. Having become the first man to achieve a golden 800/1500m double at the World Championships, he is now looking at a second - yet different - global double.

And to think that Ramzi, as he contemplates a double-double feat that even El Guerrouj, the greatest Moroccan athlete of all, fell short of, left his native country because of lack of recognition. He quit for Bahrain in 2002 as he struggled to surface from the deep well of Moroccan middle distance running talent.

Not that Ramzi has been too proud to ignore best Moroccan practice. In El Guerrouj fashion, he has assembled a team of training pacemakers with whom he has prepared meticulously for the biggest event of the year. Furthermore, he has been doing it in Morocco, in Rabat and Ifrane, where El Guerrouj trained.

Training in the desert 

However, one key distinction to Ramzi’s preparation was his decision to go to the deep south of Morocco, to the stiflingly hot Tata.

“It’s down in the desert, down in the south going into the Sahara,” John Nubani, Ramzi’s manager, said. “They wanted to get heat like Beijing and this kind of heat you can’t find in Rabat and Ifrane.”

Ramzi’s appearance in only two races this season – runner-up Asbel Kiprop, from Kenya, had run six – was part plan, part obduracy, part error. It had been in the plans to run in the Golden League in Rome but, according to Nubani, terms could not be agreed. Plan B was the Super Grand Prix in Monaco but that didn’t happen either.

“We were going to try and run in Monaco – we wanted to get a 1500m – but we screwed up,” Nubani said. “He had to fly from Morocco to Nice and we didn’t know his visa had expired.”

So, apart from his early-season second place over 2 Miles at the Prefontaine Classic, in Eugene, Ramzi’s only race was his maiden 5000m race at a meeting put on by El Guerrouj in Tangiers, which he won in 13:10.72.

In 1999, Ramzi won a silver medal for Morocco over 1500m at the African Junior Championships. After gaining Bahraini citizenship upon entering the armed forces three years later, the first indication that Morocco may have let a gem slip through the net came in 2004 when took 800m silver at the World Indoor Championships, in Budapest,.
Proof that Ramzi was no flash in the pan came at the Rome Golden Gala in June that year when he ended El Guerrouj's four-year winning streak. Yet he failed to progress beyond the semi-finals in Athens. One year later, he put that behind him as he won the 800 and 1500m at the World Championships, in Helsinki.

Osaka's mistakes

Having suffered an ankle injury in early 2007, Ramzi preferred to concentrate on training and took the high risk strategy of making the World Championships, in Osaka, his first competitive outing. His shape remained in question until the first round of the 1500m, where his strong display reinstated him as a contender.

A tactical error, though, saw Ramzi lose his title to Bernard Lagat, the former Kenyan turned United States representative. Irked by a second place that he felt was more due to his own mistakes than to Lagat’s superiority, Ramzi tried to atone in the 800m. But he went out in the semi-finals.

Ramzi’s presence in the 5000m final here would set up a fascinating script similar to those of the 2003 World Championships, in Paris, and the 2004 Athens Olympics. On both occasions, as is the case in prospect now, the 1500m champion took on the 10,000m gold medallist, each seeking a double, with Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge thrown in.

In 2003, Kipchoge – then still a junior – produced a finishing kick to thwart the big names but, in 2004, El Guerrouj conquered. Bekele, having won the 10,000m here, as he did in Paris and Athens, hopes it will be third time lucky at 5000m. Once again Bekele looks likely to face the 1500m champion but don’t rule out Kipchoge. He has been training with Brimin Kipruto, winner here of the 3000m Steeplechase.

Will what worked for Kipruto work for Kipchoge? Can Bekele fill in one of the few remaining gaps on his CV? Or will Ramzi win Olympic gold in only his third 5000m race (including today’s heat)? That will be his dream. If he can sleep.

David Powell for the IAAF